Berkeley school officials are considering changing the name of Le Conte Elementary after community members raised concerns about its namesake, Joseph Le Conte, a deeply respected UC Berkeley faculty member and a passionate conservationist who helped found the Sierra Club.
Le Conte was also, however, a slave owner and staunch supporter of the Confederacy who held views that, from a modern perspective, no longer reflect Berkeley values.
“When I did some research on Le Conte and found out that he was an unabashed, devout racist,” said School Board Member Ty Alper at a board meeting in August, “it made me really uncomfortable that we have a school named after him.”
School board members said they believe it is important that district facilities are named after people who symbolize equity and equality. The board met Aug. 26 and agreed, in concept, to work toward changing the name of Le Conte Elementary, though more discussion will take place before the official vote. The board is planning to reshape its overall naming policy, then come back to look at specific sites.
Joseph Le Conte was born and raised on his father’s plantation in Liberty County, Georgia. It was home to over 200 slaves. Le Conte’s father died when Joseph was 15, and left his estate to his children. As the years passed, Le Conte pursued his studies and helped run the plantation from afar. When the Civil War began, he served as a “consulting chemist” and was a key figure in the Confederate munitions industry.
He also had strong views on race, which he described in, among other writings, his book, “The Race Problem in the South.”
“Not only has the Negro been elevated to his present condition by contact with the white race, but he is sustained in that position wholly by the same contact, and whenever that support is withdrawn he relapses again to his primitive state,” he wrote. “The Negro race is still in childhood, it has not yet learned to walk alone in the paths of civilization.”
Because of his political views and his extensive writings on race, some community members have asked the school board in recent months to rename Le Conte Elementary, at 2241 Russell St. in South Berkeley. The board received various communications requesting the change. (A board member said those materials are not routinely made public.)
“We got a number of emails and letters from members of the community,” said Board Member Josh Daniels, adding that many of the board members had not previously known of Le Conte’s background.
“One would like to think that Berkeley has changed since then”
Lyndon Comstock is one of the people who brought the issue to the school board’s attention. Comstock is no stranger to Berkeley history; he previously delved into the development of one of its neighborhoods in his book “On Parker Street: The Evolution of a Berkeley Neighborhood 1855-1965.”
Comstock said it was the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in June that caused him to reach out to the board. He saw how the massacre prompted South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag and thought it might also be a springboard for change in Berkeley.
Many Berkeley schools are named after historical figures and people who have made a contribution to the city’s development. Some of the names are outdated, however, and no longer represent current morals and values.
This has been a problem in the past. For example, the elementary school now known as Rosa Parks was once named after Christopher Columbus. In 2001, it became Rosa Parks after parents and staff decided they wanted a name that would better reflect the community. (This is the same city that made history in 1992 as the first to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day as an alternative to Columbus Day.)
The issue of renaming schools and campus buildings is not unique to Berkeley. In June, a group of Yale students started an online petition to try to change the name of its Calhoun College. The college is named after John C. Calhoun, who was a graduate of Yale and a former U.S. vice president. In addition to those things, Calhoun was also a public supporter of slavery and referred to it as a “positive good.”
Comstock said, though there have certainly been many advances in social equality over the years, he believes the city still has room to improve. And he said renaming some of the schools and buildings in Berkeley is a step in the right direction. He noted that UC Berkeley, too, has a building named after the Le Conte brothers, not to mention the street named after Le Conte in North Berkeley. Both should be renamed, he said.
“Le Conte Hall on campus or Le Conte Elementary School in the Southside neighborhood or Le Conte Avenue in Northside, they’re all honors dating to a period in Berkeley’s history when it was just fine by the majority to honor former Confederates who were unreconstructed racists,” said Comstock. “One would like to think that Berkeley has changed since then.”
Cal historian: “We have to consider the time period that he lived in”
The prospect of the name change raises questions about how communities can preserve their history, and those who contributed to it, as times and values change. Although Le Conte was a slave owner, the work he contributed to science and the city of Berkeley cannot be overlooked.
After serving as a professor of chemistry and geology at South Carolina College, Le Conte became the first geologist, natural historian and botanist at UC Berkeley. He and his brother John — who was president of the university from 1876 to 1881 — made significant contributions during the early years of the university.
In 1892, along with John Muir and others, Joseph Le Conte helped found the Sierra Club. One of his main concerns was the problem of resource exploitation, and how it could ruin the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Steve Finacom, historian, writer and past president of the Berkeley Historical Society, said he understands the significance of having local landmarks that are culturally sensitive and reflect the city’s values. But he said he also understands the important role Joseph Le Conte played in the city’s history.
Finacom described Le Conte as one of the most popular and respected UC Berkeley faculty members of his time. And, while he acknowledged that Le Conte’s past should not go unexamined, he said he’s also concerned about the loss of institutional memory about significant city figures.
“When I listened to the school board discussion of this issue, I was struck not only by the sincerity of board members about refining an appropriate naming policy, but also by how little board members seemed to know about the origins of, or some of the people honored with, Berkeley school names,” he said.
UC Berkeley history professor Chris Shaw noted that, when looking at historical figures, there will often be facts about their lives that, from a modern perspective, may be unsavory.
“Be mindful that people are flawed,” said Shaw. “With any historical figures there are going to be some issues with how they conducted their personal lives. We have to consider the time period that he lived in.”
Student groups pushed for name change of UC Berkeley building
In March, as first reported by the Daily Cal, UC Berkeley’s Black Student Union asked the university to rename campus buildings that honor David Barrows and the Le Conte brothers, along with taking other steps to change the culture on campus and address institutional racism.
The Black Student Union says the university should not continue to recognize figures who were proud supporters of the Confederate army. Cal BSU spokesman Blake Simons, a political science major who is also the spokesman for the Afrikan Black Coalition, told Berkeleyside that the names of those buildings are deeply offensive.
“Le Conte was not only an outspoken supporter but an active contributor to the Confederacy. Le Conte was a slaveowner who actively participated in terrorism against Black people,” said Simons. “His memorialization on campus represents how the university openly celebrates the ongoing genocide of Black people. We don’t see memorials of Nazis on campus, yet white folks who have committed terrorist acts against Black people are applauded.”
A university spokesman said he was not aware of any plans to address the renaming issue.
“The university is not currently considering the renaming of any of our buildings,” Dan Mogulof said in September.
Though the campus renaming effort has not taken off, the Black Student Union says UC Berkeley plans to take a range of other actions in hopes of making black students at Cal feel more accepted and supported, including creating a $20 million endowment to be used for scholarships.
School board: Next steps
In late September, a school board subcommittee focused on the district’s renaming policy met to look at the old policy and begin work on a new one. Once the new policy is complete, the board can move forward with considering a name change for Le Conte.
According to a staff report from August, “Over the past six months, the Board received a number of emails either requesting that a school or facility be renamed or inquiring about the process of renaming a school or facility.”
As a result, the board set to work reviewing its current policy to “determine whether the Board is still comfortable with it and … determine how the process to name or rename or school or facility should begin.” Under the current policy, “the Board encourages community participation in the process of selecting names (although it is the Board’s sole prerogative to name or rename a facility) by permitting the creation of a citizen advisory committee to review name suggestions and submit a recommendation for the Board’s consideration.”
Board President Judy Appel said the Le Conte renaming issue is a serious one, which the board would like to handle as quickly and efficiently as possible, but that it’s also important to have a policy that works for the district as a whole.
“Getting a name change is a priority for the board,” she said. “We just want to form a policy that will allow the community to get involved. We need a policy that will guide us, not just for Le Conte, but for future requests.”
The board hopes to have a policy in place by the end of 2015, and would then look at finding a new name for Le Conte. Appel said she is committed to seeing it through.
“We just want to find the way to include the community in the process,” she said. She also credited the community for getting involved and bringing the issue to the board’s attention in the first place.
Board members said at their meeting in August that the current policy is vague, and may put too much power in the hands of school officials. Board Member Karen Hemphill said the community’s voice must also be heard.
“While we have ultimate power either way,” said Hemphill in August, “I think there should be a process. We shouldn’t just be able to show up and say ‘here’s the name of your new school.’’
Delency Parham, a reporting intern for Berkeleyside, is a graduate of Berkeley High School and the University of Idaho, where he majored in journalism.
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