San Francisco school board sparks controversy in renaming 44 schools, including those named after Lincoln, Washington

Rachel Grumman Bender

In a controversial decision, the San Francisco school board voted 6-1 on Tuesday to rename 44 schools throughout the city, including schools named after Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.

According to the resolution, which was adopted in May 2018, a panel of community members met for a year to examine school names in the San Francisco Unified School District. The panel identified more than 40 schools named after historical figures who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions 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 Sacramento Bee reports that some of the reasons behind the name changes are that “George Washington owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln backed policies that harmed Native American tribes. And former mayor Dianne Feinstein” — whose namesake school, Dianne Feinstein Elementary, is also on the list — “has been accused of [reportedly] ordering a Confederate flag to be replaced after it was torn down” in the 1980s while she was mayor of San Francisco.

A sign in front of a school reads: Abraham Lincoln High School
A San Francisco school-names advisory committee is recommending to remove Abraham Lincoln's name from San Francisco's Abraham Lincoln High School because of the 16th president's past treatment of Native Americans. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“This 2018 resolution came to the school board in the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville,” San Francisco Board of Education president Gabriela López tells Yahoo Life. “The school-names change is our work alongside the rest of the country to dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture.”

The renaming process will reportedly cost $440,000, with one news outlet reporting it will cost $1 million. Schools have until April 19 to decide on new names, which will be voted on by the school board. “We know schools were already beginning the process of coming up with ideas, so we formally finalized the list during our meeting last night,” López says. “Next, schools will come back to the board with the ideas they’ve put forward with their school community in April.”

While replacement names haven’t been finalized yet, there are some “ideas floating around, which are Maya Angelou, Richard Bradley, Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” says López. “There's a push to uplift names of women, Asian-American and Jewish activists, among others.”

Not surprisingly, reactions to the controversial decision have been mixed. San Francisco Mayor London Breed questioned the timing of the decision when many children are not currently attending in-person school because of the pandemic. Breed tweeted a statement on Wednesday that while “it’s an important conversation to have,” she “cannot understand” 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.” She added, “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.”

Community member Jean Barish agrees about the timing, telling the San Francisco Chronicle: “I must admit there are reasons to support this resolution, but I can’t. These are not decisions that should be made in haste.”

Social media users had their own reactions, with one Twitter user calling the decision “disgraceful.” Another Twitter user balked at the cost, writing: “$1 million in the middle of a pandemic-caused budget deficit to rename schools instead of helping parents with distance learning seems like a horrible misuse of SFUSD resources. Be better SF School Board.”

Some were surprised to see such names as Abraham Lincoln High School and Dianne Feinstein Elementary on the list. One Twitter user wrote: “San Francisco school board is voting soon on whether to cancel Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln. Until yesterday our icon of goodness and hope.” Another wrote that Senator Feinstein “deserves better than this.”

James Campbell, a professor of U.S. history at Stanford University, tells Yahoo Life that while he doesn’t object to “removing names or monuments that honor things that we as a society no longer regard as honorable,” he does “worry about how such decisions get made, and I also worry about where the process stops.”

While Campbell says he wasn’t privy to the deliberations of the San Francisco school board, “offhand I have to say that the idea of removing the name of Abraham Lincoln from a public building seems not just ill-considered but profoundly ignorant,” Campbell says. “I don't use that word often — I almost never use it — but it applies here. If Lincoln is now ‘beneath’ us, it's hard to imagine who is left to name a school after.”

But others seemed to welcome the name changes. Nguyen Louie, a parent whose children attend Adolph Sutro Elementary in San Francisco — named after a former mayor of San Francisco in the late 1800s, who reportedlydiscriminated against Black people, and which is set to be renamed — told the San Francisco Chronicle: “I think it’s important to do the right thing. ... We should not honor him with the name of our elementary school. Give us a chance to come up with our own new name. One we can be proud of.”

One Twitter user wrote: “People may think we’re erasing history... No, we’re just correcting it and fixing and redlining a few errors.”

Bridget Ford, professor and chair of the history department at California State University East Bay, shared a similar opinion in a 2020 article about renaming schools in California. “I don’t think that by renaming a school we’re erasing history,” Ford said to EdSource. “It’s not an erasure. There are many, many individuals in history who’ve done astounding things to improve American lives who’ve never been recognized. That, in its own way, is a kind of erasure. We should be lifting up and celebrating those people.”

Campbell tells Yahoo Life that there are several reasons schools across the country have sought to rename themselves in recent years. “The roiling of racial animosities by the Trump administration, the repeated examples of police killings of Black people, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing controversy over Confederate monuments, the deadly confrontation at Charlottesville — all these and other factors have contributed to the current public concern over naming.”

But Campbell points out that it’s not enough to simply rename buildings and remove controversial monuments. “If we truly wish to survive as a society — and as a diverse, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual democratic society — then we need to have the courage to look squarely and honestly at our history, to own not only those elements of our past that are gracious and honorable but also those that are grievous and horrific.”

Campbell says that the goal is “not simply to conquer the memorial landscape,” but “to think deeply about our own complicity in systems of profound injustice and thereby to move forward to building a more just, more inclusive present and future.”

He continues: “If these kinds of confrontations with painful pasts serve that goal, then I’m all for them. But if all we're doing is toppling a few monuments or sanding the names off the pediments of a few school buildings and then patting ourselves on the back for our own superior morality — well, then I want no part of it.”

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