Removing Jefferson and Washington

On July 1, 2020, the Berkeley School Board voted unanimously, 5-0, to remove the names Jefferson and Washington from two of the District’s elementary schools, and to embark on a robust community process next year to recommend new names to the Board.  I am grateful for the leadership of our Board President, Judy Appel; to my colleague, Director Ka’Dijah Brown, for authoring the resolution that initiated this process; and to Natasha Beery, our Director of BSEP and Community Engagement, for leading this effort on the part of our staff.

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2004 commentary by BUSD teacher Marguerite Talley-Hughes, who has been advocating for BUSD to remove the name Jefferson for more than 17 years

In particular, I want to recognize, appreciate, celebrate, and congratulate the Jefferson Elementary community members who, more than 15 years ago, began the push to rename the school, and whose public education and advocacy laid the groundwork for, and is largely responsible for, the Board’s action. BUSD teacher Marguerite Talley-Hughes has been leading this effort for more than 17 years, and deserves gratitude and recognition from all of us for her tireless advocacy.

Here are my own thoughts on the renaming of these schools:

It is true, and I appreciate, that, as Superintendent Stephens wrote in his report to the Board, “We know that renaming is insufficient to address the structural inequities in our educational system. This name change must be only one small step toward making good on the promise of equity.”  That is true and we all know it.  Nobody on the Berkeley School Board thinks that changing the name of the either Jefferson Elementary or Washington Elementary will allow us to pretend that inequity does not still exist in our schools, that students of color in this country and in Berkeley, especially Black students, do not face challenges that white students have privileged immunity from as a result of both institutional and overt racism, and white supremacy.

But removing the names of Washington and Jefferson from our schools is a step towards normalizing the acknowledgement both of how foundational white supremacy was to the founding of our nation, and of the reality of its continued existence even in our own progressive community.

Far from erasing history, this move will force us to tell the truth about our shared history, and about the leaders we have for too long unthinkingly venerated.

I saw a recent argument that we should distinguish historical figures like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who were honored because of their racist views, whose names grace buildings and schools precisely because they fought to preserve slavery and destroy the Union.  The argument goes that we should distinguish them from people like Washington and Jefferson who, maybe even by the standards of their time, engaged in abhorrent practices, but are not honored for the terrible things they did — they are being honored in spite of their abhorrent practices and beliefs.

I don’t buy it.  What Jefferson accomplished he accomplished on the backs of the people he enslaved, and with the benefit of their wealth, which he stole.  It is impossible to honor Jefferson for his accomplishments in spite of the fact that he bought and sold human beings, when it was the slave trade that formed the foundation of who he was, who his family was, and what we venerate him for.

George Washington also profited enormously from the more than 100 human beings he enslaved, he pursued the people he had enslaved who tried to escape, and he signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed local governments to seize and return enslaved people who had escaped, and imposed penalties on anyone who helped them escape.

Jefferson’s and Washington’s white supremacist views and actions are every bit a part of our history as are the racist police killings that continue to plague our country.

We choose what to name our schools.  And those choices are an expression of our values as a community.  Those choices are an expression of whom we choose to honor.

It’s just one step, but I am proud that tonight we made a choice to remove the names Jefferson and Washington from our schools.  Removing their names is a move towards honestly reckoning with our history, and towards demonstrating to our Black students that their lives, and the lives of their ancestors, matter.