The Berkeley School Board looks set to discontinue the name of LeConte Elementary School (sometimes spelled Le Conte). Photo: Nancy Rubin

Amid national debate over monuments to racist figures and institutions named for disgraced idols, a Berkeley school looks poised to shed its controversial moniker this week. The Berkeley School Board will vote on discontinuing the name of LeConte Elementary at its meeting Wednesday, the final step in a years-long effort to scrap the name of the slave-owning conservationist.

If the School Board approves Superintendent Donald Evans’s recommendation to de-name LeConte, located at 2241 Russell St., a committee will be formed to explore possible new names in the spring. There is support for a name change among school families and staff, though some neighbors of the school have asked to have a greater voice in the process.

The effort to rename LeConte began around 2012, when the district put the school on the path to becoming a two-way Spanish-English immersion school, according to the staff report on the School Board agenda. The PTA at the South Berkeley school created a committee to explore a possible name change around then. Parents on the committee thought it was an appropriate time to consider whether the school’s name reflected the new inclusive program.

“We are taking on a new identity and it’s very fitting for us to gain a new name at [this] time, that fits our school purpose and identity,” Robert Collier, a LeConte parent on the PTA committee, told Berkeleyside this week.

Parents, along with school and district staff, have done research on Joseph LeConte (sometimes spelled Le Conte), who was a UC Berkeley geology and natural history professor.

“We found out he was a deeply committed white supremacist who played an important role in the Confederacy,” Collier said.

LeConte is best known and respected for his scholarship in the natural sciences. He joined the UC Berkeley — then called the State University — faculty in 1869, becoming its first professor of geology, natural history and botany, and laying the groundwork for the paleontology program that exists to this day. He was an active explorer and conservationist, helping his good friend John Muir found the Sierra Club in 1892. LeConte Elementary opened the same year.

However, before LeConte became a renowned scientist in Berkeley, he and his brother ran a Georgian plantation they inherited from their father, enslaving more than 200 people, according to a lecture given by the conservationist himself. Although this was the era of slavery in the South, LeConte was not simply “a man of his time,” said the BUSD staff report, but one who continued to espouse racist and sexist ideas in lectures and writings long after the Civil War.

According to the staff report, LeConte wrote in his autobiography that the “sudden enfranchisement” of former slaves “was the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people.” Slavery, he believed, had provided an “evolutionary” service to the “lower races,” allowing slaves to have contact with white people.

In 1892, the year the school was established, LeConte gave a lecture called “The Race Problem in the South,” where he considered the appropriate role for emancipated black people in the U.S. At one point, LeConte said, slavery had been the “natural” relationship between blacks and whites, and “the evils [of slavery] were not in the institution but in its abuses.” At the time of the lecture, LeConte said black slaves, whom he deemed members of the “weaker race,” had “race-evolved” to a point where the absolute power dynamic was no longer logical. But, in LeConte’s mind, a large enough disparity continued to exist between whites and blacks by the end of the 19th century, that “the higher race must take control” still.

BUSD staff say LeConte’s past makes him unfit for a position of honor in the district.

“In the Berkeley Unified School District, we take pride in our diversity, we hold high expectations for ourselves and our students, and we treat each other with respect and act with integrity,” said the staff report. “Joseph Le Conte’s racist, sexist beliefs are antithetical to these values.”

Not the first Berkeley school to look at name change

LeConte Elementary is not the first Berkeley school to go through this process due to its namesake’s past. In 2000, Columbus Elementary School was renamed Rosa Parks Elementary. In 2005, the School Board voted against changing the name of Jefferson Elementary to Sequoia, proposed by some because Thomas Jefferson also owned slaves. A current parent at Jefferson told Berkeleyside some families want to advocate again for a name change there. At a 2015 meeting, comments from School Board members indicated that the LeConte renaming would have more support.

As more information has come out about Leconte, other institutions have reconsidered affixing LeConte’s name to facilities as well. In 2015, the Sierra Club renamed Yosemite’s Le Conte Memorial Lodge to the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center.

The BUSD staff report noted that LeConte Elementary’s name was selected by a small group in an era when Berkeley was almost entirely white and women were not yet allowed to serve on the School Board.

“We have evolved as a community, and I believe the changes are significant enough to warrant a search for a new name for Le Conte School that might carry us into the next century,” wrote Evans in the staff report.

The School Board policy on naming facilities, which was updated recently in light of the LeConte effort, says the review process can be initiated by the School Board or the superintendent for any reason, by a petition signed by parents representing one-third of the school’s students, or by a petition signed by 75% of its staff. According to Natasha Beery, director of BSEP and community engagement at BUSD, petitioners collected signatures from parents representing 144 of the 367 students, and from 35 of the 49 staff members. The petition was submitted to the School Board in May.

Speaking about the parent petition, Beery said: “I don’t think we can extrapolate that the other 61% are opposed, just that’s when the petition signature-gatherers stopped.”

“We’ve had strong support in both the parent and teacher communities at LeConte to change the name,” said parent Ludovic Blain in an email to Berkeleyside. “Most parents didn’t know who LeConte was named after, and once they found out, they’ve felt a sense of urgency to change the name.”

Blain has worked on the effort to rename LeConte through his role on the Coalition of Families for Students of African American Descent.

“I am working on changing the name with other parents because I don’t want my son going to a school named after someone who didn’t want my son educated,” Blain said. “That’s simply unacceptable to me. And even more so now that we are having pro-Nazi and pro-Confederate rallies across the country, including here in Berkeley.” Both Blain and Collier have sons in second grade at LeConte.

At the Nov. 1 School Board meeting, some members of the public, including the LeConte Neighborhood Association president, did object to the upcoming de-naming vote. They said they took issue with the process, not the content, of the vote, arguing that neighbors and community members should be included in the decision.

Mark Coplan, former BUSD spokesman and LeConte neighbor, criticized the district’s policy that only requires feedback from people at the school, and said many neighbors were completely in the dark about the possible name change because they were not notified.

“The real concern here is who are the stakeholders?” Coplan said. “The stakeholders at the school site are literally the most transient.”

The district staff report said a community meeting, though not required, did take place in October and that “immediate neighbors” were notified via flyers. The policy does require the district to hold meetings with school families and staff, both of which happened in September.

“There are LeConte family members in California”

A couple of people at the meeting also questioned whether the elementary school was even named after Joseph LeConte, suggesting it could have been named for his brother John, who was president of UC Berkeley, or even someone else entirely.

“You may have indicted the wrong guy,” said Steve Finacom, a local historian and neighbor of the school. “You need to step back before removing the name and confirm who the school is named for. There are actually LeConte family members in California. There’s a LeConte biographer.”

BUSD staff attached old newspaper articles to the School Board agenda, which show that the school was in fact named for Joseph LeConte.

If the board votes to remove the name of LeConte, the superintendent will convene an advisory committee to review and recommend new names. That committee would hold three community meetings, and the board would plan to vote on a new name by the end of the 2017-18 academic year. The district policy gives the board the authority to select a name that was not proposed by the committee.

Beery said the district has not yet estimated how much it would cost to carry out a name change. The district policy says that when the recommendation for a new name is brought to the board, the superintendent must also submit cost estimates and construction plans for a new sign.

“Obviously there are other costs that would attend a name change — some staff time in ensuring that BUSD internal record-keeping systems, websites, etc. are updated, for example,” wrote Beery in an email.

If the board votes to discontinue the LeConte name, it will remain as a “placeholder” until a new one is selected.

Note: This story previously quoted Steve Finacom saying there are LeConte family members in Berkeley. He actually said they are in California. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...