Among the recurring student feedback last fall were observations that at times, it was tough to find sources who would provide the desired viewpoints and quotes. Because the course was reporting, however, rather than opinion writing or social media messaging, my students realized that they had to follow where the story took them, and simply pose questions that seemed highest priority. Here’s an example:
By Geoffrey Scott
In front of San Francisco City Hall, a bronze Spanish vaquero and a pious missionary stand over a helpless, Native American man who appears to shudder under the dominance and power of his glorified oppressors.
Meanwhile, in a pair of public parks in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson depict the generals as though they were triumphant and victorious leaders—that is, if you can see through the large, black tarps that have covered them since the death of Heather Heyer, the activist who was run over and killed by an alt-right counterdemonstrator during protests earlier this year.
In 2017, we have seen a wave of backlash and at times, violent protest against public monuments that make light of periods of injustice in our nation’s history and leaders who in hindsight were more like oppressors of vulnerable communities.
To some, ours is a history tainted with slavery, the extermination of native people and the persistence of White supremacy.
To those who are not as critical of the nation’s story and instead value the traditional American narrative and find no offense in glorifying our sometimes problematic history, the issue can be particularly polarizing. To them, it may seem like people can cherry-pick what they consider offensive, depending on how much cultural value a name holds – such as the use of the name of our first president and known slave owner, George Washington.
When looking at Confederate monuments in the South, they are clearly more offensive. Built in the 1880s and 1890s, the statues were part of a general cultural movement to keep Black people “in their proper place” after the war.
San Francisco State University history professor Eva Wolf, whose expertise covers race relations after the Civil War, said, “They are part of a narrative, too, that Southerners fought for a noble cause.”
According to Wolf, Confederate states tried to justify the fact that they lost with the belief that the fighting itself was noble.
It is no coincidence that groups like the Ku Klux Klan were formed during those years as well, and the monuments are really “part of a violent reaction toward the freedom of African-Americans.”
San Francisco, though far from the South, still shares a national history of violence and discrimination against minority groups.
Since the arrival of the Spaniards, the native peoples have suffered a violent genocide and the theft of their lands.
San Francisco has not completely erased its own dark history. Signs of it can still be found in multiple public monuments, the names of public plazas as well as dedicated names of buildings on local college campuses.
Just in the last few months, the city has taken steps to remove “Early Days,” the insensitive statue dedicated in the 1880s that commemorates the Spanish conquest of Northern California and the native people like the Ohlone. The statue is part of Pioneer Monument at Civic Center Plaza.
At a crowded Oct. 2 meeting at City Hall, the San Francisco Arts Commission listened to the pleas of local artists, activists, government employees and dozens of people of Native American descent who requested that the city start the process of removing the portion of the monument that to them, represents hurt rather than anything else.
Professional artist Malaika Clarke, a first-generation Mexican-American who lives in San Francisco, gave the Arts Commission a compelling and emotional argument as to why the statue must come down.
“It does not take someone with an art degree to see how disgusting and racist this statue is,” said Clarke, who attained her art degree at University of California, Santa Cruz.
In her view, “the artist who designed it wanted to display dominance. You can see the white-savior complex in the piece, and it is clearly glorifying the subjugation of Native people.”
Supporters of the statue’s removal argued at the meeting that the monument condones conquest and genocide. And because it sits right in front of City Hall, it isn’t in any sort of location where its historical context could be best understood. A small placard rests at the foot of the monument, blanketed by overgrown shrubbery.
“It is a slap in the face to native people who have to face colonization every day,” Clarke said. “What about the native history that has been completely erased?”
Some who spoke against the removal, like San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission employee James Haas, suggested that removal was an unnecessary step.
Haas said there are less destructive measures, like putting a box around the statue that displays information on its history and a comment from the city on its insensitivity.
“I always found it important to have a dialogue,” Haas said, “so people understand what the issue is regarding that statue, regarding Native American culture.”
At the Embarcadero, the open, red-tiled plaza across from the Ferry Building featuring palm trees and twisted metal sculptural fountains is named after well-respected city employee, Justin Herman – although some of his work was at the expense of minorities.
Herman worked for San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency in the 1960s and took a lead role in multiple urban renewal projects, many of which resulted in the displacement of entire communities of color from the city.
The projects targeted poor Black and Japanese communities in the Western Addition and Fillmore. It resulted in 60 square blocks being demolished and more than 4,000 individuals being displaced. Last month, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Commission voted to rename the plaza.
SF Recreation and Parks Commissioner Tom Harrison, who worked as a personal assistant to Herman, defended the reputation of his former colleague and the actions of the Redevelopment Agency.
“There are many examples of the fabric of a community that gets disrupted in such a dramatic way,” Harrison said. “It’s important, however, to put these plans into perspective.”
The programs Herman is vilified for implementing were created by the federal government to address much older and deteriorating cities on the East Coast.
“Justin Herman didn’t single-handedly think up and implement these programs,” Harrison said. “He served under three mayors, one Republican and two Democrat. They all supported the agency’s work in the Western Addition.”
San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin reminded the council that the decision to change the name was not just about one man.
“I think it is time to turn the page in this chapter of history,” Peskin said. “This is in no way about demonizing Justin Herman the person, but that era has come to symbolize a lot of hurt, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities.”
After an error in the vote moved the decision to a second meeting, the commission ultimately voted in favor of changing the plaza’s name.
This year’s movement also has reached local colleges and universities. A few Bay Area academic institutions have seen their own controversies and movements to rename campus halls and residences that bear names of prominent Californians who have a history of racist views and actions.
University of San Francisco students rallied together to remove James Phelan’s from a campus residence hall, and this year, the institution replaced the name with Burl A. Toler, a football legend and honored alumnus.
Students argued that the priorities and personal values of Phelan, a former mayor of San Francisco and alumnus of St. Ignatius College, which is now USF, did not align with theirs.
Mayor Phelan served from 1897 to 1902. During that time, he pushed his anti-Japanese and anti-immigration agenda and promoted White supremacy. He eventually won election to the U.S. Senate but lost a 1920 re-election bid after campaigning on the slogan, “Keep California White.”
According to Alan Ziajka, university historian at USF, agreeing to the name change to Burl A. Toler was about reflecting the progressive attitudes of the current student body. Toler was co-captain of the undefeated, 1951 football team that boasted two African-Americans, including him, at a time when racially integrated college teams were rarities. Pundits have often dubbed the 1951 team as the best in college football of all time. Toler went on to become the first African-American official in the NFL.
Meanwhile, an article published earlier this year in the San Francisco Chronicle by John Briscoe, a University of California, Berkeley fellow and adjunct professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, brought to light problems with the history behind the naming of the law school.
Its namesake, Serranus Clinton Hastings, was an early settler in San Francisco in the 1850s, and made his fortunes in real estate.
To do this, however, Hastings promoted and financed “Indian hunting,” which was an attempt to wipe out thousands of native people in order to take their treaty-protected lands.
In his article, Briscoe poses the question: Why hasn’t genocide of native people in California received the same backlash as slavery or the discrimination of Blacks in our country?
Across the bay at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, efforts have gotten underway to address the namesake of the school’s main building, Boalt Hall.
John Henry Boalt helped pass the Chinese Exclusion Act and in 1877 lectured to the Berkeley Club about what he called, “The Chinese Question.”
After students last year campaigned to change the name of Barrows Hall—a building that houses ethnic studies and is named for a former university president with White supremacist ideology—to recognize Black Panther leader Assata Shakur, the university created an internal committee to address these kinds of issues.
According to law school spokeswoman Susan Gluss, the university has received a huge response to a survey of students, faculty, staff and alumni about the possible renaming of Boalt Hall.
The university will hold a town hall meeting to air all views on the subject early next year. A decision on the school name will be made sometime thereafter.
A moral question lies at the center of this debate. Do we take offense to figures in history who were simply, “men of the times,” or only to people who whole-heartedly and intentionally sought to oppress people of color?
Do we tear down all of the Spanish missions? Is Justin Herman to blame for policies that were passed down to him from the federal government? What about George Washington?
Should other people who did not challenge the discriminatory nature of their times be stripped of all recognition as well?
According to Professor Wolf, we are having fights over monuments and the names on our buildings because society perceives those types of ways of honoring people to be important.
Wolf said, “How we choose to memorialize people and what we do to memorialize, it has in it a message of who we are now.”