By Thomas K. Pendergast
A San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) committee is recommending 39 schools across the City, including seven in the Richmmond District, change their names.
George Washington High School, Presidio Middle School, Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, Claire Lilienthal Elementary School, Alamo Elementary School, Frank McCoppin Elementary School and Sutro Elementary are all recommended by the School Names Advisory Committee for name changes.
The committee selected those and other schools based on the following “Guiding Principles”: anyone directly involved in the colonization of people; slave owners or participants in enslavement; perpetuators of genocide or slavery; those who exploit workers or people; those who directly oppressed or abused women, children, queer or transgender people; those connected to any human rights or environmental abuses; known racists and/or white supremacists and/or people who espoused racist beliefs.
The committee held its first meeting on Jan. 30 and another the next month. When the coronavirus threat started to spread, the meetings were put on hold. They continued with Zoom meetings starting in July.
The move to change school names that some people consider offensive actually began in 2018 with the school board’s passage of Resolution No. 184-10A1, which called for the formation of such a group to “offer findings and recommendations … regarding the potential renaming of SFUSD schools …”
During a Sept. 23 meeting, SF Board of Education President Mark Sanchez spoke to the committee about its origins.
“This committee was born from a resolution that commissioner (Stevon) Cook and I authored a couple of years ago. Obviously, the timeline has not been met. We’re a little behind and more behind than ever because of COVID, maybe.” Sanchez said. “But I really want to appreciate your work and also that you are meeting consistently throughout this pandemic. You’re taking a lot of flak, obviously the the board will too as it moves forward, but we’re prepared. This is a very diverse board, a very progressive board. And we are in a time right now where this kind of work has to be done for all of us…. So, yes all of us get ready for the backlash, of course, but keep working, keep strong and keep up the great work.”
And indeed, the backlash has already begun. During public comment at their meetings several members of various high school alumni associations expressed their opposition to the name changes.
The vice president of the George Washington High School Alumni Association, Lope Yap Jr., who has been an active opponent of destroying the Victor Arnautoff murals on that campus, told the committee that the alumni association’s application to the National Park Service’s Historical American Building Survey list was approved last February.
“This national recognition honors the entire campus,” Yap said. “This week a letter was sent to Mayor Breed and (SFUSD) Superintendent (Dr. Vincent) Matthews from Mt. Vernon, illustrating the reasons to honor George Washington. Washington’s accomplishments far outweigh his negatives. Please reconsider your motives and recommendations. We oppose any name changes for George Washington High School, and others schools for questionable reasons.”
During the next meeting, committee member Mariposa Villaluna, who was a vocal supporter of destroying the Arnautoff murals by painting them over, opposed the inclusion of alumni association members in any community outreach.
“We should not include alumni associations,” Villaluna said. “I consider them members of the public that are not currently part of SFUSD.”
Committee member Kim-Shree Maufas brought up the subject of how much these name changes might cost the district.
“We’ve renamed a few schools in the last few years, so we should get information on how much that costs,” Maufus said. “Those are done and we can actually track how much those cost. Inherently, there’s going to be costs to add to this process. That shouldn’t prevent us from doing any kind of review or look but it would be nice to know.”
Committee member Adam Mehis had a different take on the cost issue.
“There’s a cost to white supremacy,” Mehis said. “When there’s a name on a building after somebody, that when people know that history there’s trauma there. It affects people’s families … there’s an emotional impact there.”
Committee member Susie Mui-Shonk also weighed in on potential costs of changing school names.
“You only have so much in the piggy bank. You can’t blow it all because you only have so much money and so many resources,” Mui-Shonk said. “Certain schools like Lowell, they do have ‘brand’ and they have ‘cache.’ If you talk about a community, kids want to hang their hat on that kind of stuff. I would think so and I think if you talk to the alumni they would think so as well.”
“I get a little nervous when you call schools, that they have ‘brand,’ or they have ‘branding,’” Villaluna responded. “I think we should step back from language like that. The cost in having a name that inflicts violence, that represents violence, is greater than someone being able to get into a certain school. I want to get away from that fear because, with SFUSD values, we’re supposed to be fearless.”
Villaluna also put Theodore Roosevelt Middle School on the list.
“He opposed civil rights and suffrage for Black folks,” she explained. “He opposed Black people voting.”
According to an article by Andrew Glass of Politico, however, the situation was a bit more complicated than that.
In 1901, Booker T. Washington, an important Black leader, was the first Afro-American to be invited to dine at the White House, where he and Roosevelt discussed politics and racial issues. When word of the dinner reached the press, there was an outcry of criticism from many white people, particularly in the South.
Glass claims that Roosevelt’s approach to racial issues was to proceed slowly toward the goal of social and economic equality, cautioning against imposing “radical changes” in government policy, hoping for “gradual adjustments” in the attitudes of white Americans toward ethnic minorities in a “passive, long-term approach toward extending full civil rights to African Americans.”
In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave Black men the right to vote, but not women. According to the Library of Congress, however, the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means to limit the effect of that amendment disenfranchised Blacks for almost a century until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Regarding replacing school names with other people, as opposed to place names or the like, committee member Gregg Castro had an observation.
“The use of historical figures, under all those criteria is really going to shorten the list,” Castro said. “Nobody’s perfect. But even beyond that, so many of American and world historical figures are going to have issues.”
Committee member Eric Myers, a union lawyer for hotel workers, had a different take on that.
“I think there’s something powerful about historic people despite their flaws,” Myers said. “I don’t think we’re looking for saints here. I think we’re looking for people who had authentic lives and had contradictions. We’re not going to find perfect people but I don’t see that necessarily as the objective.”
To view upcoming committee meetings, members of the public can go to this web address: https://www.sfusd.edu/connect/get-involved/advisory-councils-committees/school-renaming-advisory-committee.