These are complex times. Even the question “How are you doing?” is complex. But this is not complex: In a 6-1 vote late Tuesday night, the San Francisco Board of Education decided that it’s okay to name a school after Willie Brown or Philip Burton, but not Abraham Lincoln.
One day after that seven-hour discussion and vote to defrock Lincoln and 43 other namesakes — including George Washington, Paul Revere, and even “El Dorado” and “The Mission” — parents of public school children received an email from the district with the anodyne and innocuous subject line “Considerations & Preparing for In-Person Learning.”
Tucked away into the third paragraph of the email’s third section was this casual declaration: “it is unlikely that we’ll be able to offer most middle and high school students the opportunity for in-person learning this school year.”
But hey: How are you doing?
This was a frustrating moment. Not just because the San Francisco student sitting behind you may be sitting in that chair for a year and a half when all is said and done. If not more.
And it was not frustrating because Washington or other slave-owning, expansionist founding fathers will be lost in time like tears in rain without naming rights in cities they never heard of and which may not have even existed during their lifetimes.
No, what’s more frustrating is that the renaming process, which could have been inclusive and illuminating and fostered a discussion about community values and representation — and led to a lot of growth and understanding and consensus — instead became an insular process, beset by ignorance and incompetence.
And yet, our Board of Education chose to ratify each and every finding from the renaming committee — even when historical errors and methodological recklessness was known.
This remarkably flawed process, combined with the relative expediency the district has demonstrated in moving to change some one-third of its school names, stands in stark contrast to the sclerotic nature of nearly every other SFUSD-related matter.
It’s a hell of a message to send to the parents and students of Remote School 1, Remote School 2, and so on.
Absent charred wreckage and a black box, the best thing we’ve got to sum up the problems with the school district’s renaming committee is a report from the group Families for San Francisco.
Should you inherently trust any group claiming to speak for “the families” — or “the children” or “the people”? No. You absolutely should not.
You also should proceed with caution with any declarations from this particular organization; its forbear, Parents PAC, was routinely a conduit for big-money independent expenditures from moderate, downtown donors and took its fair share of money from the Police Officers Association.
So there’s that. But, in this report, they showed their work. Like they teach you to do in school.
They link directly to the Zoom meetings of the renaming committee, and to its spreadsheet, where the Wikipedia entries justifying the committee’s actions are cited.
So we don’t need to take their word for it. We can view the source material. And we can do our own subsequent research. So, regardless of the political bent of Families for San Francisco, we can know that:
- While reading out a Wikipedia entry on the beliefs of 19th-century poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell, a committee member stated that “he did not want Black people to vote.” In point of fact, a scholarly biography of the high school’s namesake states that the he “unequivocally advocated giving the ballot to the recently freed slaves.”
- The citation provided to justify the striking of Paul Revere’s name from a K-8 school was a Top-10 list from the History Channel website. That article notes Revere was court-martialed for alleged cowardice and insubordination following the disastrous “Penobscot Expedition” against the British in 1779. During a back-and-forth in a renaming committee meeting, however, this ignominious Revolutionary War military defeat was, by some alchemy, tied to the conquest of the Penobscot Indians, which was partially attributed to Revere. This is a telephone game-like invention of fact, and never happened. In reality, per the article from the History Channel website (“which is pretty credible,” per the committee), Revere went back to silversmithing after the war, and sired 16 children.
- Businessman James Lick was blackballed because committee members objected to his funding of the odious “Early Days” sculpture, depicting a prostrate Indian at the feet of white men. This monument was recently removed from Civic Center, and the committee cited a Curbed article in its discussion of Lick, who was stricken because of his connection with this artwork. Nobody appears to have closely read that article, however, which clearly notes that Lick underwrote the sculpture “posthumously,” via his estate. He died 18 years prior to its completion.
These are embarrassing, avoidable, and credibility-destroying errors. That’s a shame, because many of the names suggested by the committee are out-and-out no-brainers; if engaged earnestly, most San Franciscans could probably be convinced to accept a lot of these changes.
But that didn’t happen, and this is what you get when you perfunctorily cut-and-paste material from sources that would not be acceptable for a junior high school oral report, and then misstate and misinterpret even that paltry material.
This could have been prevented by the hiring of a 20-year-old intern fact-checker, of the sort that has saved many prestigious magazine writers from ruin. Or, perhaps, by consulting a historian who knows what he or she is talking about.
Not only did that not happen, but committee chair Jeremiah Jeffries ridiculed the notion of consulting a historian:
What would be the point? History is written and documented pretty well across the board. And so, we don’t need to belabor history in that regard. We’re not debating that. There’s no point in debating history in that regard. Either it happened or it didn’t, as historians have referenced in their own histories. So, I don’t think there’s a discussion about that. And so, based on our criteria, it’s a very straightforward conversation. And so, no need to bring historians forward to say – they either pontificate and list a bunch of reasons why, or [say] they had great qualities. Neither are necessary in this discussion.
On the day after the Board of Education’s vote, your humble narrator called up six historians — which, apparently, is six more than the renaming committee called up.
“Yes, there should have been historians involved,” said Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, and a former University of Chicago professor. “Whenever decisions are made, there should be people who can provide context and facts. We’ve learned this with covid.”
Cassandra Good, a professor of history at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., adds, “If your local government was making a policy decision on science or medicine, they’d ask scientists or doctors.” Alexis Coe, the author of the George Washington biography You Never Forget Your First, notes that “you wouldn’t go to the guy behind the bodega when you need a medical opinion.”
“The decision not to include historians in the process seems misguided — and assumes a political agenda that is not necessarily fair,” says Professor Nicole Maurantonio at the University of Richmond, in Virginia. “To ignore historians suggests that the actors involved are intent on privileging a version of the past that might fit a particular set of interests that might or might not align with history.”
But not only were historians shut out of the process, so was critical discussion.
The listed reasons for dropping Abraham Lincoln include the 1862 Pacific Railway Act and Homestead Act, which led to cavalcades of settlers heading west and bloodily wrenching land from its native inhabitants. He is also faulted for authorizing the hanging of 38 Sioux warriors in Minnesota following the six-week Dakota Uprising in 1862 — the largest mass execution in American history.
All of these things happened. “History is written and documented pretty well across the board,” as Jeffries said.
But he’s wrong when he said, “There’s no point in debating history…”
Because history is not physics; there are absolutes, but there are also interpretations.
So, while Lincoln authorized the largest execution in American history, he also authorized the largest mass-clemency in American history, sparing 265 men who had been sentenced to death. He personally reviewed these cases despite being mired in the darkest days of the Civil War, and granted clemency at no small political cost.
The Republican-controlled Senate, in fact, had passed a resolution pressing Lincoln to carry out the hundreds of planned executions — with the alternative being mass vigilante killings. This threat of a rampaging and lawless white mob was made on the Senate floor — not by a rampaging and lawless white mob but by Sen. Morton Wilkinson, a Minnesota Republican and Lincoln’s ostensible ally.
The politically expedient move for Lincoln, and the desired outcome among members of his own Republican Party overseeing the country as it fought the war that ended slavery, would have been to not intervene and allow all the prisoners to be executed.
None of this is to say Lincoln is a hero for allowing only 38 men to be hanged or that this moment in history is trivial and unimportant. Rather, it’s the opposite: America would do well to view its historical figures — and school namesakes — as flawed humans, rather than as secular saints. We should be having more discussions, not fewer.
In fact, the 2018 resolution creating the renaming committee stated that it was “necessary to engage the larger San Francisco community in a sustained discussion regarding public school names.”
That, markedly, did not happen. And the renaming committee’s internal discussion on whether to do away with Lincoln, incidentally, took all of five seconds.
When your humble narrator graduated with a degree in history, nobody heard the announcer mention the title of his thesis. They were too busy laughing at the thesis title of the guy who went just before: Hitler and Stalin: Two Very Bad Men.
Most history is more subtle than this. But the renaming committee’s criteria was not. It did not factor in the totality of a person’s life and achievements. Instead, it merely sought a single disqualifying factor, and that was that.
“If you can only name schools after people who were perfect, you will have a lot of unnamed schools,” says Eric Foner, a Columbia professor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery. “Lincoln is a difficult character to assess. His greatness, in my view, is his ability to grow. He held very different views at the end of his life than earlier.”
Leon Litwack, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus and the Pulitzer-winning author of Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, is blunter.
“This is taking things too far,” he says. “Lincoln is one of our great presidents. Maybe the greatest. I am very supportive of the efforts to remove the names of slave-holders. I never thought about the possibility this could include people like Lincoln.”
But perhaps Lincoln — or many of the 43 other vanquished names — isn’t the ultimate target here.
“Lincoln is a symbol of America,” says Foner. “He’s not the same as, say, Jubal Early, a Confederate general. He’s one of the key symbols of America. One of the reasons people may find it appealing to take Lincoln’s name down is, if you have a powerful critique of America, you’re saying something about society more than just Lincoln.”
America is a place that deserves all the powerful critiques, but whatever critique San Francisco has just made, it wasn’t a coherent one.
It was clumsy and heavy-handed. It provided so much red meat for the bad-faith elements of American culture most deserving of a powerful critique.
And, as Coe points out, it is a hollow gesture if not followed up by deep and honest discussions, outreach, and, perhaps most importantly, curriculum changes.
“We need to talk about people who are historically significant in less celebratory ways and stop thinking about complications as a liability,” she says. “We’re being confronted with all-or-nothing choices when it comes to our founding history, monuments, or school names. That’s not how history works, or our lives work, or how anything works.”
Except that’s kind of how it works here in San Francisco. Or, maybe, doesn’t work.