The San Francisco Board of Education voted 6 to 1 Tuesday night to rename 44 schools in the district — approving the recommendations of renaming committee that last year sparked controversy when it included Abraham Lincoln among the names to be stripped from local schools.
The list of names that the school board will need to come up with replacements for this spring include Abraham Lincoln and George Washington high schools, Dianne Feinstein Elementary, Jefferson Elementary, and schools named after former presidents William McKinley, James Garfield, James Monroe, and Herbert Hoover, as well as Revolutionary War figure Paul Revere and author Robert Louis Stevenson.
In the case of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe, school boards around the country are grappling with the legacies of men who were Founding Fathers of the nation but who were also slave owners, and questioning whether they should continue to make students wear sports uniforms and sweatshirts that honor their names. But in the case of Lincoln, many scholars have pushed back on making quick reassessments of his legacy based on a single incident, as the SFUSD has done — namely the execution of 38 Santee Sioux warriors following a massacre of white settlers in Minnesota in 1862. Scholars point to the fact that Lincoln, whose own grandfather was killed by a Native American, had prevented the planned mass execution of the Sioux and commuted the sentences of nearly 300 of them, a political compromise that angered many white settlers at the time.
The inclusion of Lincoln, in particular, on the list of names to be scrubbed has been a point of contention from conservative media (and Donald Trump) since it was announced last year.
"Not even revered former presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson are safe from 'cancel culture,' it appears," writes Fox News today on the school board's decision.
And the renaming committee's efforts have been criticized both for showing bias and for being conducted with Wikipedia-level research, rather than having scholars weigh in.
As the Chronicle pointed out in November, Cesar Chavez's name was never in consideration for removal, even though the revered labor leader also has a complicated legacy. Chavez was well known to discriminate against undocumented Mexican laborers, calling them "wetbacks," and his United Farm Workers union members would form "wet lines" at the U.S. border to allegedly beat up people trying to cross, fearing that they could serve as strike-breakers at California farms.
It remains to be seen if the school district can afford to execute on its renaming plans, given its current budget woes and the unknown — and likely high — cost of new signage, stationery, uniforms, gym floor painting, and more that will be involved with changing 44 schools' names. As the Chronicle reports, an initial estimate puts the cost around $1 million, and the school district currently faces a $75 million deficit — which is another reason this renaming effort has been derided by Mayor London Breed as misguided at this time.
"It’s a message to our families, our students and our community," said board member Mark Sanchez on Tuesday. "It’s not just symbolic. It’s a moral message."
One example of a fully justifiable name change is James Denman Middle School, which was named for SF's first school superintendent, a man who was known to be racist toward Chinese Americans and denied Chinese American students a public education.
In the case of Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the only (if not the only) still living figures to be slated for removal of their names, the board points to a single incident during her tenure as mayor. Feinstein was mayor in 1984 when a Confederate flag in an 18-flag array at City Hall was vandalized and then replaced (ordered by someone at City Hall, not necessarily her), though when it was vandalized a second time, she announced it would not be replaced. Snopes has fact-checked the incident and suggested that the person who insisted on replacing the flag was actually the head of Rec and Parks at the time, Thomas Malloy.
Each of the schools slated for renaming now has until April to decide amongst staff and families on a new name, which will then have to come up for a vote. So this process sounds likely to drag on for a long, long time.