Renaming Public Schools: San Francisco Attempts to Combat Racism

By Ally A-L. ’23

As our country enters an era of reckoning with systemic racism, American institutions are encountering a need to reexamine their histories, beliefs, and practices, as well as their long-valued names. Such is the situation The San Francisco Unified School District finds itself in, containing several schools named after traditionally revered, yet problematic figures of our country. Educating over 57,000 students, the SFUSD Board of Education voted two weeks ago to proceed with the renaming of 44 of the city’s schools named after prominent figures associated with slavery, sexism, and racism. The district initially mobilized in 2017 following the unrest in Charlottesville to organize a commission to reevaluate names of schools in order to “condemn any symbols of white supremacy and racism,” according to Board of Education President Gabriela López. The vote was finally undertaken on January 26, 2021, and passed with 6-1 approval. The decision is a controversial one, and leads to a larger discussion about the intentions, actions, and impact regarding the change.

Famed names getting the boot are those such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, and current U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. A spreadsheet released by the Board of Education explains each individual renaming decision. Some may be unsurprising— in recent years, it has become more widely discussed that the generally esteemed George Washington was a slave owner and colonizer, and John Muir, environmentalist champion extraordinaire, was derogatory towards Black and Indigenous people. However, understanding the reasoning behind the ousting of others’ names might be less known. Upon doing research, it can be discovered that Abraham Lincoln, although acclaimed for liberating American slaves through his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, also instituted policies detrimental to the well-being and safety of Native Americans. Another potentially non-obvious name purge is the elementary school named after current Senator Dianne Feinstein. The city cites their action due to Feinstein having replaced a Confederate flag in front of City Hall when a protester took it down back when she was mayor in 1984, and records that she has vetoed and voted against legislation intended to aid homosexuals. 

The logic behind the renaming of some other schools, however, has drawn public criticism based on concerns of the legitimacy of the facts used by the Board. Paul Revere Elementary School, named after the Revolutionary War hero, was explained by the Board to be receiving a new name due to Revere’s role in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779. Revere was indeed involved in this military expedition against the British in Penobscot Bay, Maine, yet a Board committee member misread an online article about the mission and falsely asserted during the renaming meeting that the expedition was named such due to Revere attempting to colonize nearby Penobscot Native Americans. This claim inaccurately labeled Revere as a racist colonizer, leading to him being deemed unfit by the Board to retain his name on a school. James Russell Lowell, the namesake of San Francisco’s arguably academically strongest high school, also had his name deposed due to committee members quoting a Wikipedia article claiming Lowell did not support Black suffrage. However, scholarly publications strongly oppose this, assuring the abolitionist “unequivocally advocated giving the ballot to the recently freed slaves.” Even the story of the incident with the Confederate flag and Senator Feinstein is a potentially inaccurate portrait. Sources close to the congresswoman claim there were other officials responsible for the replacement of the flag and it was not Feinstein herself. Among these incidents are others, giving rise to a sea of doubts and criticism of the legitimacy of the sources used by San Francisco’s Board of Education to evaluate the conditions on which to rename a school. 

The criterion inaccuracy is not the only reason some are critical of the actions of the school district. San Francisco mayor London Breed said frustratedly in a statement, “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.” Many others have questioned the decision to rename in the midst of a pandemic that has left many students deeply struggling without in-person education. Current SFUSD students also voiced mixed opinions regarding the name change. One high school senior mentioned she understood the reasoning behind the desire to rename schools, but also wondered about more productive and active ways to handle the issue, such as focusing on redefining narratives regarding racism in the daily lives of students. 

Board President Gabriela López ultimately stands by the decision. Dismissing the possible historical inaccuracies and criticism the vote has produced, she shared in an interview, “[T]he criteria was created to show if there were ties to… specific themes.. [w]hite supremacy, racism, colonization, ties to slavery, the killing of indigenous people, or any symbols that embodied that. And the committee shared that these are the names that have these ties.” Although her vocal commitment to anti-racism is admirable, purging certain school names is only a surface level action. And if the logic behind renaming these schools depends only on the potentially inaccurate research of committee members and is not thoroughly vetted, should the action even be commended? 

In my opinion, systemic racism in schools and other institutions undoubtedly needs to be discussed and examined, and society should carefully question the historical figures we choose to put on a pedestal. But in a pandemic-damaged, hardship ridden year, if this decision is going to be a top priority of the district, it should be considered more thoroughly than it appears to have been. One that is costly, likely inaccurate, and ultimately a passive solution to an active problem, San Francisco’s decision to rename schools may address racism on the surface, but the real impact to be made and felt is in active engagement and dialogue with students, families, and the community at large. 

A link to the spreadsheet provided by the Board of Education is here:

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