Matt Haney, the president of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education, was discussing Maya Angelou with friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon when he decided to tweet an idea he had been mulling over.
“We should rename Washington High School after San Francisco native, poet and author Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou High School. No schools named after slave owners,” Haney wrote, according to the Los Angeles Times. (His account has since been set to private.)
Haney, a white male, knew full well how this might be taken, but he says he only wanted to spark a debate. But he didn’t expect the outpouring of anger on social media.
Nor did he expect, after an appearance Wednesday on “The O’Reilly Factor” to receive a call from the San Francisco Police Department warning him of a threat against him.
In response, Haney made his Twitter and Facebook accounts private, but he spoke to The Washington Post early Friday morning about his intentions in sending the tweet, the fallout from it and his feelings about George Washington.
“I knew it would be provocative and start a debate,” he said, before pausing. “I should say, start a conversation.”
The tweet was a call to rename George Washington High School, which is one of San Francisco’s largest high schools, with a 2016 student enrollment of 1,998. According to the latest profile posted on the school’s website, its racial composition in 2010 included 6.2 percent African American students, 49.8 percent Chinese American students and 17.3 percent “other non-white” students.
In the school is a mural depicting Washington with slaves. This mural in particular draws Haney’s ire.
“Numerous students have told me that they’re disturbed by the mural,” he said. “Students have told me that they walk in and it’s disturbing, it’s painful.”
Haney suggested instead naming the school after one of its former students, Maya Angelou. She dropped out at 14 to become the city’s first black female cable car conductor.
The response to his tweet was swift. Some offered support; some seemed offended.
“Arrest him for treason,” tweeted one user.
He doesn’t regret sending the tweet.
“I maybe wish I had been clearer that I’m not intending to change the school names without the support of the community,” he said, before adding. “We need to be able to have an adult conversation.”
These headlines aren’t unfair — he did tweet “No more slave owners.”
And he did tell the San Francisco Chronicle, “We need to have a conversation about this. Especially at George Washington High School. We have school names in San Francisco that are not relevant or meaningful or inspire pride.”
But he told The Washington Post, “I think a lot of people have misinterpreted what I was trying to do by putting it out there, which is suggest an idea, start a conversation and let the community take it from it there. It wasn’t a formal proposal or something I was going to force on anybody.”
“I’m calling for introspection, some conversation,” he said. “The most important thing for me is that our school communities have names they’re proud of, and that they know their school board is open to a conversation about that.”
The conversation he wanted to ignite was bigger than just the name of a high school.
“We don’t talk about slavery much in this country. We don’t think much about what it meant,” Haney said.
Added Haney, “We never talk about it, which is kind of weird.”
To that end, he’s pleased with his comments.
“It’s forcing us to have that conversation [about slavery],” he said.
Haney says he’s a newcomer to the debate over the names of public institutions. “I have not really spent time or thought about this issue much until a week ago,” he said. But it’s an ongoing one in America.
In 1997, Orleans Parish, La., following a policy of not honoring slave owners, swapped George Washington’s name on an elementary school for Charles Richard Drew, a black surgeon who lived from 1904 to 1950.
And ever since Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in the heart of Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, and authorities say killed nine unarmed black worshipers, the debate surrounding the names of public institutions and subjects of public monuments has filled headlines.
The Confederate battle flag was removed from South Carolina’s statehouse on July 10, 2015, after flying for 54 years. An Austin school recently launched a crowdsourcing campaign to rename its Robert E. Lee Elementary, Mashable reported. A Confederate monument in Louisville, was moved from its prominent location near the University of Louisville. A battle has raged in New Orleans surrounding the planned removal of several Confederate monuments, the Associated Press reported.
The difference in the case of George Washington is his revered status and the prevalence of things named after him. Thousands of schools, streets and towns are named for the first president. His likeness appears on the dollar and the quarter. A state is named for him, as is the nation’s capital and by dint of its location, this very newspaper.
Haney knows this.
“It doesn’t have to be all or none,” he told The Post. You can keep honoring George Washington … while also having a couple schools here and there change to somebody that the community feels represents who they are and what they care about.”