SAN FRANCISCO – The names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and other prominent figures including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein will be removed from 44 San Francisco public schools, a move that stirred debate Wednesday on whether the famously liberal city has taken the national reckoning on America’s racist past too far.
The decision by the San Francisco Board of Education in a 6-1 vote Tuesday night affects one-third of the city's schools and came nearly three years after the board started considering the idea. The approved resolution calls for removing names that honored historical figures with direct or broad ties to slavery, oppression, racism or the “subjugation” of human beings.
In addition to Washington and Thomas Jefferson — former presidents who owned slaves — the list includes naturalist John Muir, Spanish priest Junipero Serra, American Revolution patriot Paul Revere and Francis Scott Key, composer of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Changing the name of Dianne Feinstein Elementary school, named for the Democratic senator and former mayor of San Francisco, has raised eyebrows. The trailblazing 87-year old’s star has dimmed in recent years with dismayed liberals joining calls for her retirement last year after she embraced Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham at the end of heated confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Feinstein's spokesman Tom Mentzer said the senator had no comment.
The committee that selected the names included Feinstein on the list because as mayor in 1984 she replaced a vandalized Confederate flag that was part of a long-standing flag display in front of City Hall. When the flag was pulled down a second time, she did not replace it.
“I want to ensure people this in no way cancels or erases history,” San Francisco Board of Education President Gabriela Lopez said, commenting specifically about Feinstein and the wider group as well. “But it does shift from upholding them and honoring them, and these opportunities are a great way to have that conversation about our past and have an opportunity to uplift new voices.”
Lopez said the decision is timely and important and sends a strong message that goes beyond racism tied to slavery and condemns wider “racist symbols and white supremacy culture we see in our country.”
For some San Francisco parents, the brush stroke was too broad.
“This is a bit of a joke. It’s almost like a parody of leftist activism,” said Gerald Kanapathy, a father of two young children, including a kindergartener at a San Francisco school not on the list.
“I don’t particularly mind the notion that some of the schools need to be renamed. There are a lot of questionable choices out there,” he said. “But they sort of decided on this and pushed it through without much community input.”
A group called Families for San Francisco opposed the vote for similar reasons, calling it a “top-down process” in which a small group of people made the decision without consulting experts and the wider school community.
“We think it is very important for the community at large to be engaged to figure out who should be honored with public school names,” said Seeyew Mo, the group's executive director.
“We would like to have historical experts to provide historical context as we are evaluating people from the past with today’s sensibilities,” he said.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is Black, called the move poorly timed given the coronavirus pandemic that has kept the city’s schools closed since March.
“Our students are suffering, and we should be talking about getting them in classrooms, getting them mental health support and getting them the resources they need in this challenging time,” Breed said, adding that she supports the discussion of renaming schools but feels it should include parents, students and others and take place when classrooms reopen.
The renaming process was led by a committee created in 2018 to study the names of district schools amid a national reckoning on racial injustice that followed a deadly clash at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The committee was asked to identify schools named for people who were slave owners or had connections to slavery, colonization, exploitation of workers or others, and anyone who oppressed women, children, queer or transgender people. They also sought to change names of schools that honored anyone connected to human rights or environmental abuses or espoused racist or white supremacist beliefs.
Lopez said the schools have until April to suggest new names, which the board will vote on, and the actual renaming “could take a couple of years."
Historian Harold Holzer cautioned against what he called “a danger of excess” if the country takes a wrecking ball to its past.
“I think there’s a danger in applying 21st-century moral standards to historical figures of one or two centuries ago," he said. “We expect everyone to be perfect. We expect everyone to be enlightened. But an enlightened person of 1865 is not the same as an enlightened person of 2021.”
Holzer disagrees with the renaming of Abraham Lincoln High School, which the San Francisco committee said was due to the treatment of Native Americans during his administration.
In the midst of the Civil War in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the Confederacy.
“No one deserves more credit for the destruction of slavery,” said Holzer, a Lincoln Scholar and director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House of Public Policy Institute. “Lincoln is much more liberator than he is an abuser on the subject of racial justice.”