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School names latest target in effort to account for racist legacies of historical figures

Michael Chwe was surprised – and motivated to act.

The UCLA economics professor received his bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, and remembers well the reverence for Robert A. Millikan, a renowned physicist and the university’s first president, around campus.

The Nobel Prize recipient, Chwe said, represented a sort of demigod.

But then, the current racial justice movement sprang up, in the wake of the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd. And Chwe, through various conversations, learned that Millikan was a leader in the Human Betterment Society – which actively promoted sterilizing people with disabilities.

Millikan, whose name adorns several Caltech buildings and who has a bust dedicated to him on campus, was an ardent proponent of eugenics and supporter of Nazi Germany.

“It wasn’t just that he believed in eugenics,” Chwe said, “but he was a member of a group that actively promoted it. They took pride and communicated with the Nazis.”

Chwe knew he had to act. He created an online petition calling for Caltech to remove Millikan’s name from “all buildings, spaces, and programs,” as well as the bust of him. The petition – which also demands Caltech stop honoring fellow eugenicists E.S. Gosney, A.B. Ruddock, Harry Chandler and William Munro – is just shy of 1,000 signatures.

Caltech administrators, for their part, say they created a task force to study and advise on the school policies toward naming buildings.

“We take seriously the concerns raised by members of our community on this matter,” said university spokesperson Kathy Svitil.

The engraved legacy of Millikan at Caltech, however, represents a nationwide call by Black activists and others for society to reexamine which historical figures the country lauds, create a more comprehensive understanding of these past leaders’ beliefs and attitudes, and an understanding of how monuments, eponymously named buildings and other symbols honoring them underpins systemic racism.

California schools and universities have been among the targets.

From San Juan Capistrano, in south Orange County, to major Southern California cities such as Los Angeles and Long Beach – and even as far north as Berkeley – education officials have faced campaigns to rename schools dedicated to slaveholders, Spanish colonials and eugenicists.

“It is not possible for Caltech to retain the names of Millikan, Ruddock, Chandler, Munro, and Gosney on its campus and claim moral decency,” Chwe’s petition says. “If Caltech does not act, it admits to being comfortable with lower moral standards than (other) institutions.”

But some people have argued that the effort to expunge historical figures from buildings has gone too far.

Take, for example, Long Beach’s Wilson High School.

That campus, part of the Long Beach Unified School District, is named for President Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson’s legacy, historians say, is checkered: He backed the Ku Klux Klan and screened in the White House “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that, while revolutionary from a cinematic perspective, presents a revisionist history of the Civil War and early Reconstruction Era.

But when Jon Meyer, an LBUSD school board member, heard of a petition calling for Wilson High to get a name change, he was conflicted.

Meyer graduated from Wilson and met his wife there. His father was part of the first graduating class.

“I completely understand the Black Lives Matter movement and this nationwide thrust to get rid of anything that was tainted by racism in the past,” Meyer said. “I understand that, but to some extent, it’s a little misguided.”

Meyer said he supports removing statues of Confederates, such as former Vice President John C. Calhoun, but questioned how far the country should go.

“What about (President Thomas) Jefferson, (President George) Washington and others? It gets more complicated,” he said. “Rather than attack the name of a high school, let’s build a plan where we charge forward from this day and try to make our world better.”

But Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said it’s especially egregious for racially diverse school districts to pay homage to those who perpetuated and condoned racism and oppression.

That includes, Hutchinson said, LBUSD, which also has a Millikan High — named after the Caltech physicist — and a Jordan High School, which honors David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University and a known proponent of human sterilization.

“To have (Wilson’s) name on a high school in Long Beach with a near-majority of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and students of color,” Hutchinson said, “is a travesty and insult to a diverse city such as Long Beach.”

Hutchinson said America is currently undergoing a reckoning over who the country honors – and schools, which educate the future of America, should be at the forefront.

“The line should be drawn by expunging their names from these schools,” Hutchinson said.

Questions remain, however, about how much momentum there is at specific schools and districts to change the names.

The Wilson High petition does have more than 3,000 signatures. But it’s unclear how many of the signatories are local.

And at an LBUSD school board meeting last month, few people during public comment – relative to the total number of speakers – discussed changing the name of Wilson. And of those who did, most favored keeping the names.

“We understand both sides and we understand the importance of symbolism,” district spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said. “That’s one of the reasons we have changed school names in the past. The question is, how far do we want” to go?

The creator of the Wilson High petition did not respond to requests for comment.

LBUSD has, in fact, changed school names in the past, as Eftychiou said. In 2014, the district changed Peter H. Burnett Elementary School, named after the first governor of California and a known racist, to Bobbie Smith Elementary, honoring the school district’s first Black board member. Two years later, it changed the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary to Olivia Herrera Elementary, a well-liked local educator.

But the district has no plans, at the moment, to rename its high schools – though Long Beach City Councilman Rex Richardson, who is Black, has suggested naming the school after another Jordan, such as musician Louis Jordan, civil rights leader Barbara Jordan or basketball legend Michael Jordan.

In San Juan Capistrano, administrators at JSerra Catholic High School have also said they will stick to the name – despite recent controversies surrounding Junipero Serra.

Serra founded the California missions in the 18th century, but also facilitated Spanish colonialism and Native American persecution.

The school, which unveiled a statue of Serra in 2018 on the third anniversary of his canonization, recently had to work with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to prevent potential vandalism, after other Serra statues in California were toppled.

JSerra teaches students the entire legacy of its namesake, school President Rich Meyer said  — good and bad. Ultimately, he said he believes, Serra’s legacy is that he “gave his heart to the people of California.”

“It’s with great pride we bear Father Serra’s name,” Rich Meyer said. “We are not going to shy away from who we are.”

Other school districts, meanwhile, acted quickly to excise the names of controversial figures.

In Berkeley, for example, the school board recently voted to change the names of Washington and Jefferson elementary schools because both men owned slaves.

And Fullerton High School recently changed the name of Plummer Auditorium. Its namesake, Louis Plummer — a former Fullerton Joint Union School District superintendent — reportedly had ties to the KKK.

Yet, other school districts have taken a more methodical approach.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is looking at what to do with its Jordan High School.

“We have people looking at these areas, as well as other ways we can directly address the issue of systemic bias and institutional racism,” LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said recently as he addressed issues with campus policing. “This moment cannot be about more words and false promises. It has to be about real change based on logic, reason and genuine engagement.”

Caltech, with its newly created task force, recently held a virtual town hall to discuss removing the names of Millikan and his brethren.

“We are committed to building upon these conversations,” Svitil said, “and to seizing this moment to take direct steps toward a campus where every member of our community has the access and support to achieve their full academic and professional potential.”

Staff writer Jeong Park contributed to this report.

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Source: Orange County Register

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