School Board Votes to Change Name of LeConte Elementary School

The Berkeley School Board voted unanimously last night, Nov. 15, to change the name of LeConte Elementary School. The 125-year-old school was originally named for Joseph Le Conte, the first UC professor of geology, who was an early supporter of John Muir’s Sierra Club. Professor Le Conte was also a well-known proponent of white supremacy, and during the Civil War, oversaw munitions works for the Confederacy. In the words of Superintendent Donald Evans, who responded to a petition from the LeConte School parents and staff, Le Conte’s “important contributions to science … are overshadowed by his noxious views, which he expressed and disseminated widely in order to deny others the power and freedom he enjoyed.”

The Board’s vote set in motion a process to determine a new name for the school, which will include appointment of an advisory committee that will be asked to bring forward a recommendation to the Board within the next six months.

A detailed description of the rationale for removing the name, and the process for changing a school name, can be found in the Superintendent’s Recommendation, which was included in the Board agenda for November 15, 2017. A presentation on the item, including the recommendation of Superintendent Evans, and the Board discussion and vote can be viewed in the video of the meeting beginning at 1:09:12.

Below is a slightly edited version of the remarks made by Board President Ty Alper during the discussion.

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Berkeley School Board President Ty Alper’s comments on changing the name of LeConte Elementary School, Nov. 15, 2017 Board meeting (slightly edited):

A decision to discontinue use of the name of a school that has been in place for over 100 years should not be taken lightly, and I am deeply grateful to Dr. Evans and Natasha Beery for the thorough, impeccably researched, nuanced, and thoughtful memo that accompanied this recommendation. I am also grateful for the powerful words of my colleagues on the Board, and will explain my own thinking on this issue.

I first want to acknowledge the question of whether a decision here will “open the floodgates.” Do we rename everything now? Are we holding every person we name something after to an impossible standard of purity? What about other facilities or schools names after people who owned slaves? What about the name Berkeley, who was a slave owner? What about others who said or did things in their lifetimes that cast some kind of shadow over their legacy?

Our policy requires us to look at a person’s contributions “as a whole.” The way I view this is that we look at each case on a case by case basis as they come to us, hopefully with the same diligence and care that this case was brought to us. And there may be some hard cases that are brought to us as a later time, I don’t know.

But what is key for me is this principle: The fact that harder cases exist is not an excuse for inaction in an easy case. And I believe, looking at all the factors we are supposed to consider, this is an easy case.

One important point is Le Conte School’s status as the two-way immersion (TWI) school in our district. When we were researching successful TWI schools, one thing we learned from other districts is the importance of building an identity for the school around the name and even the facility itself. I have long thought – even before I knew anything about Joseph Le Conte – that it might be appropriate to change the name of the school. This is not alone a reason to change it under our policy, but it factors into my vote tonight.

A few of Joseph Le Conte’s writings to highlight a point others have made in response to the suggestion that his views on race were just a product of his time. I think it is important that the record reflects some of what he actually believed and said. These are a few passages from his 1892 speech “The Race Problem in the South,” and I emphasize the date – this was almost three full decades after the end of the Civil War:

“… the possession and use of inherited slaves is consistent with, and may even be conducive to the highest morality.”

“Some form or degree of control by the white race is still absolutely necessary.”

“Race-prejudice or race-repulsion is itself not a wholly irrational feeling. It is probably an instinct necessary to preserve the blood purity of the higher race.”

These quotes demonstrate to me that Le Conte was a man who used his considerable intellect and power and authority to spread vile and far from universal views about the inferiority of races other than his own.

I want to now read from an email I received this morning from Monica Beletsky, who has family in Berkeley and lives in Los Angeles. She writes:

“LeConte owned many members of my maternal great grandmother’s family. He was a brilliant but unkind and racist Confederate who made ammunition for the Confederacy in his chemistry labs and no doubt the slaves who were his assistants were forced to help him make explosives against the Union. I have documents showing the prices he bought my family members for between 25 and 500 dollars. It has made me sick to my stomach to see his name on schools. (There’s a middle school here in LA). I am half Jewish and half black. Seeing his name glorified to me is akin to seeing Nazis glorified and we would never name an elementary school after a Nazi.

“The argument that he was a man of his time rings false to me since there were many abolitionists and Union men at that time as well. His writing on his beliefs of the inferiority of black people are revolting and don’t reflect the spirit of inclusion of Berkeley. I know how hypocritical his views are because Woodmanston Plantation in Riceboro where he lived and owned two sides of my family was a plantation that housed one of the two pre-eminent botanic gardens in the US. The LeContes used the free labor of my enslaved ancestors to cultivate some of the most exotic and new specimens of trees and flowers and had a rice farm that was engineered with the help of the enslaved people.

“It took very intelligent men and women to assist the LeContes with the science produced there. My great grandmother was born there and later moved to Philadelphia with her husband who was also born on the LeConte’s land. They lived in poverty as did my grandparents and father. In four generations I got into Harvard and graduated with honors just like the LeContes who owned my family. I will never know how many of my family members who were contemporaries of Joseph LeConte might’ve also been known for great things had they been allowed to read and were able to work with pay and go to college rather than being trapped working for the LeContes against their will for free for at least three generations.”

I am a proud graduate of Columbus Elementary School, but I am even prouder of the fact that the school is now named after Rosa Parks. That is not erasing history, it is not whitewashing the past, it is progress towards a more inclusive, welcoming, and just public education system. The Superintendent’s recommendation, and our vote tonight, represents similar progress.

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