San Francisco

Berkeley Elementary School Will Be Scrubbed of Problematic Namesake

Amid a national push to rename campuses that pay tribute to controversial historical figures, the Berkeley school board on Wednesday voted unanimously to scrub LeConte Elementary of its namesake of 125 years.

The board pledged to solicit input on a new moniker from the Berkeley community. An advisory committee will be formed in the coming months, and a new name will likely be selected by the end of the 2017-18 school year, the board said. In the meantime, the school will still be referred to as LeConte Elementary.

“In the Berkeley Unified School District, we take pride in our diversity, we hold high expectations for ourselves and our students, and we treat each other with respect and act with integrity,” wrote Superintendent David Evans in support of the name change. “Joseph Le Conte’s racist, sexist beliefs are antithetical to these values.”

Joseph LeConte was one of UC Berkeley’s first professors and a vanguard of early conservation efforts in California. But the geologist also owned hundreds of slaves and manufactured munitions for the Confederacy during the Civil War. His writings also display unapologetic racist and sexist attitudes that were widely accepted in the late 19th century.

All told, more than 170 community members, including teachers and parents, signed a petition supporting the effort to find a more suitable name for LeConte Elementary.

“The children of LeConte deserve a school name they can take pride in," PTA President Leah Martens said during the meeting. 

The school has transformed over the past few years, becoming a dual-immersion campus that is home to an increasingly diverse student body. A new name would help signify the school’s evolution, said board member Karen Hemphill.

“The desire to change to a name that is more in line with what the school’s mission is and philosophy is makes a lot of sense to me,” Hemphill said, adding that she was typically more hesitant when it comes to renaming historic institutions. “Clearly, the name that is there today does not meet that standard.”

The fraught debate over place names and monuments dedicated to disgraced historical figures has only recently started to gain nationwide traction, but members of the Berkeley community have been pushing to scrap the LeConte name for several years. Back in 2005, members of the Berkeley community tried and failed to rebrand Jefferson Elementary School on Ada Street. 

LeConte is still honored with a namesake glacier in Alaska, a waterfall in the Sierra Nevada, and a building on UC Berkeley’s campus. A small group of university students protested outside of LeConte Hall in 2014, unsuccessfully pressuring the administration to replace the name.  

In contrast to UC Berkeley, a process for the renaming of buildings in the Berkeley Unified School District already exists, streamlining the issue for the board. The new moniker must meet certain qualifications before being accepted.

In approving the new name, the board will be required to “examine whether the individual, on the whole, has made outstanding contributions to the community or made contributions of state, national or worldwide significance in light of the Berkeley community's values and contemporary view on history.”

In the last few years, several buildings have been stripped of their problematic namesakes, including Jordan and Terman middle schools in Palo Alto, which were named after notable eugenicists. Committees have been exploring renaming pathways in San Francisco and at Stanford University. 

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