By Thomas K. Pendergast
A San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) committee is recommending the City rename 39 schools, including 11 in the Sunset District.
The schools that are on the list include: Abraham Lincoln High School; James Russell Lowell High School; Herbert Hoover Middle School; Lawton Elementary School; Dianne Feinstein Elementary School; Thomas Jefferson Elementary School; Francis Scott Key Elementary School; Commodore Sloat Elementary School; Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School; Ulloa Elementary School and Noriega Early Education School.
These names were recommended by the School Names Advisory Committee for changes 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 those 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.
But 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 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.
A member of the Abraham Lincoln High School Alumni Association, Jacqueline Schwartz, spoke out against the 16th president’s inclusion in the list of names to be changed.
“He’s known for something extraordinary, and without him we might all be flying Confederate flags these days,” Schwartz said. She said the Alumni Association feels this change is “being railroaded through without our say.”
John Trasvina, president of the Lowell Alumni Association, spoke out against including Lowell High School on the list.
“In addition to being an abolitionist – strongly against slavery – (James Russell Lowell) wrote in every newspaper in the country against the U.S.-Mexico war because of the inhumanity of our war against Mexico in the 1840s. He was an inspiration not only for abolitionists during the 19th century but during the 20th century as well,” Trasvina said, noting further that Dr. Martin Luther King had referenced Lowell in his speeches.
According to a research paper put together by committee members, Lowell was on the list because, although admittedly an abolitionist, “his commitment to the anti-slavery cause wavered over the years, as did his opinion of African Americans” with Lowell allegedly writing at one point that “we believe the white race, by their intellectual and traditional superiority, will retain sufficient ascendancy to prevent any serious mischief from the new order of things,” according to the committee.
As for Lincoln, after a failed insurrection by Lakota warriors, he ordered 38 of them hung, which was carried out on Dec. 26, 1862. Initially, 303 Lakota men had been condemned to death by a military tribunal, but Lincoln spared the rest from the gallows by commuting their sentences.
During the next meeting, committee member Mariposa Villaluna, who was a vocal supporter of painting over the Victor Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School, 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.”
The elementary school named after former San Francisco Mayor and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is still on the list because of a 1984 incident related to the Confederate flag flying in front of City Hall.
According to press reports, the Confederate flag had flown in front of San Francisco City Hall since 1964, as part of an 18-flag display intended to symbolize various stages of American history.
In 1984, when Feinstein was mayor, Richard Bradley, 34, wore a Union uniform, climbed the flag pole and cut the flag down and burned it. He was arrested and charged with malicious mischief.
The flag was replaced the next morning, presumably under Feinstein’s order.
Bradley once again climbed the pole, cut it down and was arrested again on the same charge. After that incident, Feinstein announced that the flag would not be replaced.
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.