San Francisco OKs Plan to Strip Lincoln and Washington From School Names

Forty-four public schools will no longer bear the names of historical figures once deemed worthy of commemoration.

The San Francisco Board of Education voted to rename 44 public schools during a virtual meeting on Jan. 26. (Screenshot image via Courthouse News))

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — They were honored with grand memorials in the nation’s capital and hailed as two of the greatest American presidents but George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are no longer welcome as names of San Francisco public schools.

The city’s board of education on Tuesday approved renaming 44 public schools, including those named after Thomas Jefferson and “Star Spangled Banner” writer Francis Scott Key, both slave owners, and Spanish missionary Junipero Serra, who critics say supported the conquest of indigenous people. 

The decision comes more than two years after the board formed a panel in May 2018 to review the appropriateness of school names.

The committee drafted guidelines on who should be considered for removal. They included anyone involved in the colonization of people, slave owners, perpetuators of slavery or genocide, those who exploited workers, those who oppressed or abused women, children, queer or transgender people, those connected with human rights or environmental abuses, and those who are “known racists and/or white supremacists” or who espoused such beliefs.

Late last year, the School Names Advisory committee delivered a list of 44 school names recommended for redubbing. Among the 44 names was U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been accused of replacing a vandalized confederate flag outside City Hall when she was the mayor of San Francisco in 1984. 

Some critics, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, rebuked the school district for focusing on renaming schools instead of reopening them. Schools have been closed since last March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Objectors also argued on Tuesday that the school should use its limited resources for more pressing priorities during a recession. Replacing signage for schools will cost approximately $440,000, Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh said Tuesday.

Earlier this month, a group called Families for San Francisco released a report blasting the process used to determine which schools should be renamed. The report argued the panel did not include the larger community in its discussions or consult with historians.

The committee was also criticized for focusing on “just one thing” that made individuals unworthy of having a school named after them, instead of measuring their flaws or disgraceful acts against their positive contributions.

One of the most controversial proposals is the renaming of Abraham Lincoln High School in the city’s Sunset District. Regarded by many as one of the greatest U.S. presidents, Lincoln steered the nation through a turbulent civil war and ended slavery, but critics say he also contributed to the genocide of indigenous people.

The U.S. military engaged in violent battles with Native Americans during the Lincoln administration. Lincoln also supported the expansion of railroads and the Homestead Act of 1862, both of which contributed to the loss of indigenous land.

But it was Lincoln’s decision to execute 38 Native Americans involved in the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota that some view as one of his most egregious acts. A military commission had sentenced 303 Sioux men to death for a spate of violence that killed 350 white settlers. The bloodshed came after the U.S. violated treaties that promised the Sioux large portions of Minnesota Territory land and regular cash payments in exchange for territory previously taken. The U.S. repossessed half their land and reduced the cash payments, leaving many Sioux people unable to acquire basic necessities, fueling fights over limited resources. Lincoln commuted the sentences of 264 Sioux men he found were convicted without adequate evidence. Another person sentenced to death was granted reprieve, but the hanging of 38 Sioux men remains the largest public execution in U.S. history.

Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University, believes it’s important to recognize that no person, president or otherwise, is infallible.

“When we commemorate figures from our past, we do so for many reasons. Usually, it’s not because they were perfect in their time or ours, since none of us are,” Neem said. “It’s because they have made a significant contribution to our collective public good, something that earns people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln a place in our pantheon.”

Aaron Sheehan-Dean, history professor at Louisiana State University, emphasized the importance of understanding the motives behind the commemoration of a historical figure. In the South, some schools were named after Confederate generals in the 1960s during the civil rights movement in what many perceive as a political statement against racial equality and desegregation.

Understanding why a building was named after someone can help people in the present decide if those reasons and underlying values are the same values we want to embrace today, he said.

“I would prefer to see a debate that’s more weighted around context as opposed to this individual,” Sheehan-Dean said.

University of Virginia history professor Caroline Janney gives Lincoln credit for preserving the Union and ending slavery, but she does not believe historians should decide what names are appropriate for schools or buildings. That decision should be left to the community, she said.

“The people that matter are the people that attend that school or send their children to that school, whether teachers or cafeteria workers,” Janney said. “That’s the name that they identify and have to reckon with.”

Suggestions for new school names are due on April 19.  

This is not the first time San Francisco has removed names or symbols of historical figures. In 2019, school officials voted to cover a 1936 George Washington mural that some complained portrayed Black and indigenous people in a dehumanizing manner. The city also removed an anti-Chinese congressman’s name from a popular playground, rebranded Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and took down a statue that critics denounced as glorifying the conquest of Native Americans. 

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