Mayor London Breed has already scoffed at a school district committee that is recommending the renaming of 44 schools in San Francisco based on fresh looks at the legacies of the figures they are named after, calling it a "waste of time" in a pandemic when there are more pressing matters to deal with. But now the national news media is picking up on the fact that Abraham Lincoln doesn't pass muster with the committee, and they are planning to recommend the renaming of Lincoln High School.
Setting aside President Lincoln's role in ending slavery and presiding over the Civil War, the district's renaming committee was primarily focused on Lincoln's record with regard to Native Americans when they added him to their list of honorariums that need to be erased. As the Chronicle reported this week, first grade teacher and committee chair Jeremiah Jeffries supports the renaming of Lincoln High both because of Lincoln's failures with regard to the country's treatment of Native Americans, and because he says the common narrative that Lincoln was focused on Black lives in pursuing the Civil War is false.
"The history of Lincoln and Native Americans is complicated, not nearly as well known as that of the Civil War and slavery,” Jeffries told the Chronicle. “Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that Black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building."
It's this latter statement that was seized upon by the New York Post in another article that shall join the legions filed under "Why San Francisco is Crazy." And, of course, President Trump has picked up on the thread on Twitter via the right-wing site Daily Caller saying, "So ridiculous and unfair. Will people never make a stand!"
Regardless of Trump's feelings or the New York Post's, the inclusion of Lincoln on a list of other figures like James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners, points to the heart of the problems that arise with these renaming discussions — and the application of 21st Century perspective to 18th and 19th Century figures.
Jeffries was asked by the Chronicle, for instance, whether the committee had discussed the legacy of Latino labor leader Cesar Chavez, whose negative and derogatory views toward undocumented immigrants were well documented. (Chavez referred to undocumented farm workers as "wetbacks," and his United Farm Workers union members used to form "wet lines" at the border to beat up people trying to cross, believing they could serve as strike-breakers.) Jeffries replied that Chavez "did not meet criteria" for name removal, and then seemed to admit that no one on the committee even discussed Chavez's legacy.
Speaking to the Chronicle, Sherry Black, who spent over 40 years in Native American economic and community development, expressed a desire for weighing the good with the bad with Lincoln's legacy. "I have so many reactions in the sense of looking at his entire record and the fact of what [Lincoln] did for Africans and slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation. Considering the time period, it’s so difficult to understand how things were at the time. How do you make these decisions?"
Historians point to several things in Lincoln's tenure as president, in particular his support of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the building of the transcontinental railroad, both of which led to the loss of Indigenous lands and sometimes bloody conflicts. But they also point to the fact that Lincoln, whose own grandfather was killed by a Native American, commuted the sentences of hundreds of Santee Sioux warriors who were sentenced to death following a violent uprising in Minnesota in 1862. Critics point to the fact that Lincoln still oversaw the mass hanging of 38 of the warriors, which was done in horrifying fashion in front of a large crowd of white settlers — but that was one tenth of the 303 men who were sentenced to die, and Lincoln's mass commutation is seen by historians as his acknowledgement of the abuse suffered by the Santee Sioux over years of white settlement in the area.
As KTVU reports, Mayor Breed already issued a statement about the renaming drive back in October, saying, "Look, I believe in equity. It’s at the forefront of my administration and we’ve made historic investments to address the systemic racism confronting our city. But the fact that our kids aren’t in school is what’s driving inequity in our City. Not the name of a school."
A formal recommendation on the renamings will come in January, and will still need review by the full school board.