How many people behind Long Beach school names deserve the honor? Here’s some history to help you judge

In his play “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare wrote, in Mark Anthony’s “friends, Romans, countrymen” soliloquy, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

And, you might argue, vice versa.

The good that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers did is beyond legendary and their oratorical and leadership talents that formed the basis of our country as well as our collective ethos, have been honored, if not glorified, to the extent that they’ve had great monuments built or had their faces chiseled into a mountain. States, cities, capitals, counties, currency and postage stamps have featured their names and images and countless schools have been named for them because of their accomplishments, while the bad that they’ve done has often been swept away or has been considered to have been outweighed by their more virtuous achievements.

In recent years, and continuing to increase in recent weeks, as slavery and the subsequent injustices and worse suffered for centuries by Blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans at the hands of some of America’s long-revered heroes have grown in the consciousness of Americans of all races, many of the country’s long-honored and seldom-vilified persons—particularly those involved in the Confederacy—have been more thoroughly studied and analyzed and have been found to be less deserving of our adulation.

Many of their names have been removed from institutions ranging from elite Ivy League colleges to small-town elementary schools, and rightfully so in most cases.

The honors in whatever form that we bestow upon people are just that: An honor. And when we find out or reach the verdict that the honoree is no longer deserving of praise and emulation, the honor can and should be retracted. It’s not changing history, it’s clarifying it; it’s completing it.

In Long Beach, we’ve already removed, in 2016, the name of Peter Burnett, California’s first elected governor who held openly-racist attitudes toward Black, Chinese, and Native American people and who proposed, while in the Oregon legislature, forcing Blacks to leave the state or else face floggings. He was also an enthusiastic advocate of exterminating local California tribes, a policy that eventually led to a state government bounty offering $10 to $25 for evidence of dead Native Americans. The Burnett school is now named for Bobbie Smith, the first African American female president of the Long Beach School Board.

The following year, the name of Robert E. Lee, a man better remembered as a traitor to his country and under whose martial brilliance the Civil War was lengthened, was stricken from an elementary school, now named for Olivia Herrera, who founded Central Shalom in 1977, where she and others provided support for disadvantaged families in the former Lee Elementary neighborhood.

Today, there are a couple of movements aiming to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School and David Starr Jordan High School.

Wilson is disparaged for any number of racist actions he committed or that were committed during his administration, including his immediate post-election action of firing 15 of 17 Black federal supervisors and waging a campaign to eliminate Black employees from the federal workforce, and for failing to intervene to stop racial violence, including lynchings and racial massacres of Black Americans during his presidency.

His name has already been stricken from schools and buildings bearing his name at Princeton University, where he had been president, and petitions abound around the country to have Wilson’s name removed from bridges, schools and parks, including the high school in Long Beach.

Kristin Beeler, A North Long Beach resident and professor at Long Beach City College wrote an op-ed for the Post on June 16 calling for a name change for Jordan High, for Jordan’s racist beliefs and his role in the American Eugenics Movement.

“As an educator who sees meaning in students’ connection to origins, I was struck by the deep disconnect between a [largely] minority high school bearing the name of a prominent eugenicist,” Beeler wrote in the piece directed to Long Beach Unified School District board members, Jordan principals Ronnie Coleman and Bill Salas and Councilman Rex Richardson. “I can’t imagine the effect, teaching and learning under the name of someone who would never have considered your students and colleagues valuable enough to educate.”

While there isn’t an accepted calculus to weigh great acts against deplorable acts that would allow for a mathematical conclusion regarding honoring notable figures, there is plenty to examine when it comes to looking at people who have been honored in the Long Beach Unified School District. So much good, so much bad.

Here are some historical figures who have been honored with a Long Beach school name. Does their good outweigh their bad?

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

The good: Cabrillo was proclaimed heroic at a time when this country was enamored of explorers without any sort of skepticism. He’s especially revered in California, an area he explored in the 16th century.

The bad: Along the way, he assisted the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in wiping out Aztecs in their capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and assaulted other Indigenous natives, breaking up families by sending the men to work in the gold mines he had captured in Guatemala and turning over the women and girls to his soldiers and sailors.

Should Juan Cabrillo be canceled as the namesake for the Long Beach high school?

John Charles Fremont

The good: He was a leader in opening California and served as a US Senator for the state. In 1856 he was the first Republican nominee for President of the US.

The bad: While heading north to extend his reach into Oregon he and his men conducted the 1846 Sacramento River massacre, which resulted in the death of as many as 600 members of the Wintu tribe. One of Fremont’s men described the raid:

The settlers charged into the village taking the warriors by surprise and then commenced a scene of slaughter which is unequalled in the West. The bucks, squaws and paposes were shot down like sheep and those men never stopped as long as they could find one alive.

Robert A. Millikan

The good: Millikan won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923.

The bad: He, like David Starr Jordan, was on the board of the Human Betterment Foundation which was created to study the “declining quality” of the population in the US. One of its chief intentions was to encourage sexual sterilization for eugenic purposes and it conducted studies on mass sexual sterilization to try to provide evidence that sterilization was doing what it was intended to—improving the quality of the population. The HBF deemed sexual sterilization for eugenic purposes to be both humane and effective.

Charles A. Lindbergh

The good: In 1927, at age 25, Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight, going from New York to Paris. It was a turning point in the development of commercial aviation.

The bad: He considered Russia to be a racially mixed country with a strong Asian component and favored Nazi Germany over Soviet Russia, which he claimed would destroy the West’s “racial strength” by replacing everyone of European descent with “a pressing sea of Yellow, Black and Brown.”

Luther Burbank

The good: A botanist and horticulturist, Burbank developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including fruits, flowers, grains, grasses and vegetables.

The bad: Through his agricultural work of selective breeding, it’s not surprising that Burbank was, like others of his era in the 1920s, an avid eugenicist. He was a member of a group that promoted anti-miscegenation laws, involuntary sterilization and other racially motivated segregation.

Thomas Jefferson

The good: Too much to mention. A Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the second vice president and third President of the US.

The bad: While he was an abolitionist in the abstract, he nevertheless owned some 600 slaves in his lifetime (slave ownership was practiced by 10 of this country’s first 12 presidents). He was considered a “benevolent” slave-owner (there’s an old-school oxymoron for you), going to the whip only in rare cases and giving his slaves Sunday off. There is strong evidence to show that he kept one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, as a concubine with whom he fathered several children.

Grover Cleveland

The good: Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th President. He kept the trains going and he’s in the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

The bad: He avoided conscription during the Civil War by paying $150 to a 32-year-old Polish immigrant to serve in his place. After the war (which the immigrant survived), Cleveland began seeing a widow, Maria Halpin, who later accused him of raping her. In an attempt to discredit her, he accused her of being an alcoholic and of consorting with men (other than himself). He had her child, a product of their illicit relationship, taken away and given to friends and put her in an asylum for the insane, which quickly realized she didn’t belong there and released her.

Grover Cleveland, the “me too” president.

Abraham Lincoln

The good: Usually ranked as the best, second- or third-best president, Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves of the Confederacy with his Emancipation Proclamation, which led to the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the country.

The bad: He wasn’t a big fan of Black people. In the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, he said, “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.” And, while he acknowledged that Blacks and Whites would continue to live together, “there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.”

Theodore Roosevelt

The good: The 26th President of the US was a noted conservationist and naturalist who expanded the National Parks System and established 150 national forests, five national parks and 51 federal bird reserves.

The bad: A lot of his work in opening federal lands came at the expense of Native Americans who were relocated to considerably less impressive locations. In an 1886 speech in New York, Roosevelt said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are. And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” Roosevelt was also an aggressive imperialist who led American expansion into colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, including Puerto Rico and Guam, believing colonization was necessary to civilize what he considered to be “backward” nations.

Theodore Roosevelt liked his Indians dead.

John Marshall

The good: Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice, from 1801-1835 and is considered to be one of the most influential justices to sit on the Supreme Court. He believed slavery was evil and he opposed the slave trade.

The bad: He owned slaves for most of his life and he founded the Virginia chapter of the American Colonization Society that favored sending freed Blacks to Africa. One historian has noted that Marshall may have owned hundreds of slaves and engaged in the buying and selling of them throughout his life, though that assertion has been met with skepticism by most Marshall biographers who claim he had only a few slaves.

Leland Stanford

The good: He founded Stanford University in 1891, served as both governor and Senator of California.

The bad: As president of Central Pacific Railroad, he made millions of dollars as a robber baron (In 1975, students at Stanford University, having axed their mascot, the Indians, voted to have the Robber Barons as their new nickname. The university was not amused and overrode the election.) and, though he availed himself of the cheap labor of Chinese immigrants, he spoke out against them, telling the California legislature in his 1862 inaugural address, “Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. … There can be no doubt that the presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race.”

Patrick Henry

The good: A Founding Father (though he argued against the ratification of the Constitution), the first (and sixth) Governor of Virginia and a great orator (“Give me liberty or give me death”).

The bad: Though he hoped to see slavery end, he offered no plan beyond barring the importation of slaves. He was a slaveholder throughout his life.

___

So does the entire LBUSD need to be knocked down and all the schools renamed with numbers and neighborhoods? No! There are more than 70 schools in the district, and most of them are named for people with whom it would be difficult to come up with serious enough dirt to warrant a name change.

Mark Twain? No problem. Same with the poets John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Helen Keller? Jackie Robinson? What’s not to like and admire?

Perry Lindsey Jr. honored his father at the dedication of the Perry Lindsey Academy in 2008. LBUSD photo.

And maybe most worthy of all are our local educators who have earned the honor of having schools named for them: Perry W. Lindsey, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and the first African American to hold the position of principal in Long Beach; Elizabeth Hudson, who taught in Long Beach for 10 years and served on the Board of Education for 22 years, including six years as president; Douglas A. Newcomb, LBUSD superintendent from 1947-1962 during which time he oversaw the district’s enrollment as well as schools double in number; and, of course, Minnie Gant, the first Long Beach teacher for which a school was named in the district. She first became principal of the Temple Avenue School in 1918, the first woman to become principal. She authored, in long hand, the first courses of study in history, geography and arithmetic.

She did it herself; she owned no slaves.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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