In late January, the San Francisco Board of Education declared that schools named after such people as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Dianne Feinstein would be renamed. They said that such people were problematic and had ties to a variety of racist incidents.
The committee chairman leading this campaign is first-grade teacher Jeremiah Jeffries. In considering which names to remove, he refused to invite historians for consultation. Instead, committee members used Wikipedia references to conclude that individuals were “racist.” Historians say that Mr. Jeffries appeared eager to ignore academic debate in favor of advancing his own political agenda.
To a proposal that historians be consulted, he declared: “What would be the point? History is written and documented pretty well across the board. And so, we don’t need to belabor history in that regard. Either it happened or it didn’t.”
According to Mission Local, one committee member urged that the name of poet James Russell Lowell should be removed from a high school because a Wikipedia citation stated he “did not want black people to vote.” That claim was false and scholarly articles assert that Lowell unequivocally advocated giving the ballot to the recently freed slaves.
The case of James Russell Lowell shows us how little this committee was aware of American history. Lowell was a committed abolitionist. In 1845 he wrote a series of critical essays that included pleas for the abolition of slavery. Between 1845 and 1850, he wrote more than fifty essays calling for an end to slavery. In a popular poem of this era, which has always been one of my favorites, are these lines:
They are slaves who fear to speak,
For the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.
The committee concluded that Paul Revere’s name should be removed from a middle school after citing an article from the History Channel website. It was alleged that Revere’s military activities were tied to the conquest of the Penobscot Indians. James Lick, a 19th-century San Francisco business leader, was deemed a “racist” after committee members failed to critically read an article about his life. The committee said that Lick had funded a sculpture showing an American Indian lying at the feet of white men. In fact, Lick died 18 years before the statue was created. It was only partially funded by his posthumous estate.
Historians have been critical of this entire enterprise. Professor Nicole Maurantonio of the University of Richmond said that “To ignore historians suggests that the actors involved are intent on privileging a version of the past that might fit a particular set of interests that might or might not align with history.” Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, says the renaming process lacked complexity: “If you can only name schools after people who were perfect, you will have a lot of unnamed schools.”
Alexis Coe, author of a best-selling biography of George Washington, said, “We’re being confronted with all-or-nothing choices when it comes to our founding history, monuments or school names. That’s not how our history works, or how our lives work, or how anything works.”
Of the decision to remove Abraham Lincoln’s name, Leon Litwak, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, says, “This is taking things too far. Lincoln is one of our great presidents, maybe the greatest. I am very supportive of the efforts to remove the names of slave holders. I never thought about the possibility this could ever include people like Lincoln.”
Dr. Cassandra Good, a professor of history at Marymount College, notes that “If your government was making a policy decision on science or medicine, they’d ask scientists or doctors.” But Mr. Jeffries says that “There’s no point debating history.”
While Jeremiah Jeffries thought it was not necessary to consult historians, those who have spent their lives committed to the study and teaching of history sharply disagree. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association and a former University of Chicago professor, says, “Whenever decisions are made, there should be people who can provide context and facts. We’ve learned this with Covid.”
It is not clear what the motivation of Mr. Jeffries really is in launching his crusade to change the names of San Francisco’s schools, nor do we know how conversant he is with the details of American history. His refusal to consult historians and to rely on often incorrect anecdotal stories from less than reliable sources does not inspire confidence. Beyond this, his background indicates that his understanding of American history may have particular biases which are not well known. He was, for example, strongly influenced by his parents, who were both prominent members of the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan. His parents established their own school, the Clara Muhammad School. The Nation of Islam is designated an “organized hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay teachings. It is not known how much Mr. Jeffries’ thinking might have been influenced by this group.
The final decision on school names will not be made until April 19. Already, more than 8,000 people have signed an on-line petition strongly opposing the name-changing endorsed by the School Board. Those on the board are guilty of what the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called “the sin of contemporaneity,” finding our ancestors wanting for not holding today’s contemporary values. Let us hope that San Francisco will resist this assault on our history. If ever there was a time when knowledge of our history is essential, it is now.
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The featured image is a photograph of the main entrance of Abraham Lincoln High School, San Francisco, California, (2020) by BriefEdits and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.