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Un-Canceled: SF School Board Formally Rescinds Move To Rename Schools After Lincoln, Washington, Feinstein

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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: The statue of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln sits in the main chamber of the Lincoln Memorial on President's Day, February 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. President's Day was first observed in 1796 in recognition of George Washingtons birthday, the first President of the United States, which is February 22nd but it was eventually proposed to honor both Washington and President Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12th, into one federally recognized holiday on the first Monday in February in 1971.
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The San Francisco Board of Education has formally reversed its decision to rename more than forty public schools with names they deemed problematic or connected to racism and oppression, including schools named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, several months after their attempted rebranding initiative tossed them into the national spotlight. 

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the school board voted unanimously for a resolution to overturn the school renaming decision, which would have required a large-scale and potentially costly effort at the expense of taxpayers. The outcome of the vote was expected and was designed to avoid litigation from opponents of the policy who have alleged the board violated state law by not giving proper notification ahead of the vote. 

The school board’s resolution, however, vows to revisit the issue of renaming the so-called problematic schools once students have returned to classrooms full-time. It also accused those who filed the resolution of engaging in “nothing more than a transparent attempt to thwart a lawful and duly-noticed action with which it disagrees.”

The resolution Tuesday brings a formal — but likely temporary — end to an effort that prompted widespread criticism of the city’s school board, a body composed of only a handful of elected officials who usually go unnoticed, especially at the national level. 

Back in October, POLITICO, citing the San Francisco Chronicle, reported that Dianne Feinstein Elementary School was on a list of public schools names that the San Francisco School Names Advisory Committee had deemed to be problematic. As The Chronicle noted, the elementary school named after the long-time California senator “made the list because, as mayor in 1986, Feinstein reportedly replaced a vandalized Confederate flag, one of several historic flags flying in front of City Hall at the time.” A spokesperson for Feinstein has since said the flag preceded her and was replaced by a department without her input, and that she later consulted with the board of supervisors and had it removed, reports The New York Times. 

Feinstein, however, was only one of the dozens of school names that met the committee’s sweeping criteria, which included everyone from those who exploited workers, to those who abused women, children, or transgender people, to those who espoused racism. Abraham Lincoln High School found itself on the list because of the 16th president’s treatment of Native Americans; Lowell High School, one of the nation’s most prestigious public schools, was targeted because the advisory committee said the 19th-century abolitionist James Russell Lowell “wavered” in his commitment to the anti-slavery movement and “in his opinion of African Americans,” according to the local news site Richmond Review/Sunset Beacon. 

The school board ultimately voted 6-1 to rename nearly one-third of its public schools — all while they were closed for in-person learning — with new names to be selected at a later date. 

But in late January, San Francisco’s Mission Local published a highly critical report on how the district’s re-naming endeavor was “beset by ignorance and incompetence” and contained major factual errors. From Mission Local: 

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. 

Jeremiah Jeffries, chairman of the renaming committee, was also dismissive toward the idea of including historians in the renaming effort, reports Mission Local. And when Board of Education President Gabriela Lopez was confronted by New Yorker Magazine about the historical errors in the renaming effort in a February interview, she defended the initiative. 

NEW YORKER: The reason I bring this up is that some of the historical reasoning behind these decisions has been contested—not so much how we should view the fact that George Washington was a founder of the country and a slave holder but, rather, factual things like Paul Revere’s name being removed for the Penobscot Expedition, which was not actually about the colonization of Native American lands. And so there were questions about whether historians should have been involved to check these things.

LOPEZ: I see what you’re saying. So, for me, I guess it’s just the criteria was created to show if there were ties to these specific themes, right? White supremacy, racism, colonization, ties to slavery, the killing of indigenous people, or any symbols that embodied that. And the committee shared that these are the names that have these ties. And so, for me, at this moment, I have the understanding we have to do the teaching, but also I do agree that we shouldn’t have these ties, and this is a way of showing it.

NEW YORKER: I guess part of the problem is that the ties may not be what the committee said they were. That’s why I brought it up.

LOPEZ: So then you go into discrediting the work that they’re doing, and the process that they put together in order to create this list. So when we begin to have these conversations, and we’re pointing to that, and we’re given the reasoning and they’re sharing why they made this choice and why they’re putting it out there, I don’t want to get into a process where we then discredit the work that this group has done.

NEW YORKER: But it seems like we should have some sense of whether what they did was historically correct or not. No?

LOPEZ: I’m open for that conversation.

The topic of inaccurate information was revisited later in the conversation.

NEW YORKER: So none of the errors that I read to you about previous entries made you worried that maybe this was done in a slightly haphazard way?

LOPEZ: No, because I’ve already shared with you that the people who have contributed to this process are also part of a community that is taking it as seriously as we would want them to. And they’re contributing through diverse perspectives and experiences that are often not included, and that we need to acknowledge.

NEW YORKER: I’m not quite sure what that means when we are talking about things that did or didn’t happen.

LOPEZ: I think what you’re pointing to and what I keep hearing is you’re trying to undermine the work that has been done through this process. And I’m moving away from the idea that it was haphazard.

Later in February, Lopez released a statement saying that she was taking responsibility for the “mistakes made in the building renaming process,” and said that the effort would be suspended. “This is the last time I’ll comment publicly on renaming until schools are reopened. We will not be taking valuable time from our board agendas to further discuss this, as we need to prioritize reopening,” she said.

The school board’s April 6 vote officially reverses the re-naming effort.

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