Opinion: Now is the time to change the name of Jordan High School

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Kristin Beeler, an arts professor at Long Beach City College and North Long Beach resident, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

Dear Long Beach Unified School District board members, Principals Ronnie Coleman and Bill Salas and Councilman Rex Richardson:

First, allow me to thank you for your work on behalf of our North Long Beach community. I have been full-time, tenured faculty at Long Beach City College for nearly 20 years and a resident of North Long Beach for 10. There is considerable pride in this neighborhood and it has been my pleasure to get acquainted with its remarkable history and my neighbors. The first occupants of my house, built in 1928, could easily have been some of the first students at David Starr Jordan High School. Two years ago, out of curiosity I looked into the story of our neighborhood high school and its Panthers.

As an educator who sees meaning in students’ connection to origins, I was struck by the deep disconnect between a 75% Black, 99% minority high school bearing the name of a prominent eugenicist.

When we allow monuments to a corrosive past, it poisons the well from which our young people drink. I grew up under the shadow of the Robert E. Lee statue that will soon be removed in Richmond, Virginia. I moved from a 99% white high school named for another Confederate general to a historically Black college in Kentucky. It was there we were trained to ensure that every person had the same opportunities that we did and to build for better ones.

Your Panthers are my neighbors and my students. Many who just graduated from your classrooms will come directly to ours this fall. Our young people navigate obstacles unseen to us, their roots are important to them and they have more access to information than ever.

The history page of your website tells them, “Your success, or failure in life as well as in school, rests squarely upon your shoulders.” This statement is inconsistent with the vast knowledge about institutionalized racism in which David Starr Jordan was a leader. In 2015, Tim Grobaty called out Jordan’s worthiness in the Press-Telegram. Four years ago, in Palo Alto Online, Lars Johnsson reports that Jordan wrote “…colonies are not national expansion; slaves are not men. Wherever degenerate, dependent or alien races are within our borders today they are not part of the United States. They constitute a social problem, a menace to peace and welfare.” Racist academics like David Starr Jordan influenced generations of students and faculty with his belief that “To say that one race is superior to another is merely to confirm the common observation of every intelligent citizen.”

The long-term effects of this belief remain on every street in our beautiful but often neglected neighborhood. It is simply untrue that the burden of success is on the shoulders our students. That burden belongs to us all, each of us entrusted with the lives of young people. The school’s online tribute to David Starr Jordan doesn’t mention his racism. 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. Clearly you want your Panthers to know their own history, to be driven by curiosity about the world they live in. How are they left to resolve the distance between the conditions of their lives and the history that their school and its governing board value?

We work with the same marginalized communities and like you, we often don’t have the resources that we need to create the substantial and lasting change that our students deserve. Probably this is not the first time this issue has been brought you. If change is in process already, then I offer my support. Institutional name changes can be complex problems. But this is the right moment to take up the problem and turn the school’s history into something that reflects the community it serves.

The Lars Johnsson article cited above was written regarding changing the name of a privileged, upper class middle school in a town where Jordan had been the university’s president. Palo Alto and North Long Beach probably looked very similar in 1933. Jordan High School took its nomenclature from an era that needs to be finished. In 2018, Jordan Middle School was renamed Greene Middle School for Frank Greene Jr. “who is remembered for having designed the fastest memory chip in the 1960s and …being one of the first African-American founders of a publicly traded tech firm.” Today, North Long Beach and Palo Alto are universes apart now. However there can be little doubt that since 1933 there has been a graduate, teacher or mentor at our local high school who embodies the best hopes of our students and provides them with a role model worthy of their potential.

As a young girl growing up in the South, it seemed like there was little I could do to change a system that was morally bankrupt on human equality. Finally, thanks to the work of many brave and generous souls, monuments to racism are coming down around the country. It is an invitation to us all to look closer to home.

How can we, as a community, help you prioritize this so that we share the burden of change for our youth?

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