The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

San Francisco school board votes to rename dozens of schools — including Washington and Lincoln

This March 12, 2020, photo shows Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
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The school board of the San Francisco Unified School District just agreed to move ahead with a plan to change the names of more than 40 schools that now honor presidents and other historical figures. They include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and current Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The panel voted 6-1 late Tuesday to approve the plan, which calls for removing from schools names of those who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings,” “oppressed women,” committed acts that “led to genocide,” or who “otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The San Francisco Unified board’s action is part of a movement ongoing for years to get school districts around the country to remove from schools the names of Confederate figures and others who symbolize the country’s racist past.

The resolution, based on the work of the School Names Advisory Committee that met for more than a year on the issue, calls on the public to submit new names for the schools by April 19 — timing that was questioned by San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D).

She said in a statement that she understood “the significance of the name of a school,” but: “What I cannot understand is why the School Board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then.

“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. Our families are frustrated about a lack of a plan, and they are especially frustrated with the fact that the discussion of these plans weren’t even on the agenda for last night’s School Board meeting.”

School board President Gabriela López said, however, that the renaming is “an opportunity for our students to learn about the history of our school’s names, including the potential new ones.”

“This resolution came to the school board in the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville,” she said in a statement, “and we are working alongside the rest of the country to dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture. I am excited about the ideas schools will come up with.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that Joan Hepperly, co-executive director for United Administrators of San Francisco, said the union supports renaming the schools but thinks the timing is rushed. And it said some school alumni associations oppose the changes.

For each name it wanted to change, the advisory committee offered a specific reason (you can see the spreadsheet.) For example:

  • George Washington High School — Referring to president George Washington, the spreadsheet says, “Slaveowner, colonizer”
  • Monroe Elementary School — Referring to president James Monroe, the spreadsheet says: “Slave owner (imprisoned 100s of slaves in Monroetown, Va.)"
  • John Muir Elementary School — Referring to naturalist John Muir, the spreadsheet says, “Racist and responsible for theft of Native lands"
  • Longfellow Elementary School — Referring to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the spreadsheet says: “He wrote poems & prose with stereotypes of nonwhite people”
  • Dianne Feinstein Elementary School — Referring to the Democratic senator, the spreadsheet cites a number of reasons, including an unproved accusation that she put up a Confederate flag. It also accuses her of opposing same-sex marriage, though she voted against a constitutional amendment to ban it.

For Abraham Lincoln High School, the explanation on the spreadsheet was far longer, saying in part that Abraham Lincoln, who freed Black slaves, “is not seen as much of a hero at all among many American Indian Nations and Native peoples of the United States, as the majority of his policies proved to be detrimental to them …”

Roosevelt Middle School, the spreadsheet says, was named for president Theodore Roosevelt, who, it said, opposed “civil rights and suffrage for Black folks.” It also made a case against naming a school after his distant cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saying in part, he “refused to support anti-lynching bill (proposed by his wife) and other racist policies/views.”