Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A school desegregation icon could replace a slave-owning conservationist as the namesake of a South Berkeley elementary school this week.

Following a years-long effort to first “de-name,” then rename LeConte, district staff will ask the Berkeley School Board to consider “Sylvia Mendez Elementary School” on Wednesday.

The board, which has the authority to select a different name instead, may vote then or at the next meeting.

The selection of a new name for LeConte comes after a complex process involving multiple surveys, community committees and analyses of more than 100 submissions, the district said. (See agenda item 13 for documents detailing the process.) Sylvia Mendez remained a popular option throughout. The final recommendation comes from a committee of LeConte parents, teachers and neighbors.

Mendez, the child of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants, was 9 years old when she was prohibited in the 1940s from enrolling in an Orange County public school due to her ethnicity. Her cousins, who had lighter skin, were admitted. The family had recently moved to the area to lease a farm from a Japanese American family incarcerated at a WWII internment camp.

Mendez’s father, Gonzalo, sued four school districts for secluding Mexican-American students like his daughter in separate schools.

The class-action case paved the way to end legal segregation in California schools in 1947.

“While Brown v. Board of Education is a widely known landmark Supreme Court case, few can trace its origins to the case of 9-year-old Sylvia Mendez in Mendez v. Westminster,” the federal courts website says.

Mendez, now in her 80s, has become an outspoken advocate for civil rights and equal education. She visited Berkeley schools last year to share her story, per an invitation from the citywide César Chávez and Dolores Huerta Commemoration committee. School Board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, who sits on the committee, told Berkeleyside the idea was to honor the 70th anniversary of the Mendez case and teach students “what important work her parents did that lead to desegregation in California.”

One of Mendez’s stops during the trip was Jefferson Elementary, where a class of second-graders had made a video reenacting the Mendez family’s experience.

District staff said Mendez was the kind of figure the community set out to honor with the new name.

“The story of Sylvia Mendez meets many of the key criteria: of being inspiring and enduring, with a young Latina girl at the center of a landmark case for access for all to public education,” staff said in a board document. LeConte is the district’s Spanish-English immersion school, so many people hoped it would be the first BUSD site named after a Latino figure.

“The compelling Mendez story also tells of children, women, families and neighbors fighting for their rights, and lifts up an under-recognized piece of California history,” staff said.

Others had advocated strongly for different names, including those of figures with stronger Berkeley ties or connections to other communities.

The shortlist finalized in March included six additional names. Included were Ruth Acty, BUSD’s first African-American teacher, hired in 1943; denise brown, a beloved former LeConte teacher and Berkeley High administrator, who died in 2007 (and did not capitalize her name); Dolores Huerta, the famous labor and immigrant-rights activist; Mamie Tape, a Chinese-American girl at the center of another desegregation case; Ohlone, for indigenous Northern Californians; and Arco Iris, the Spanish word for rainbow.

Ironically, Mendez was the least popular option among Berkeleyside readers who participated in a (highly unscientific) poll about LeConte’s new name. At publication time, the name had received 33, or 3%, of the 1,289 votes. Dolores Huerta and Ohlone were the favored options.

Board documents include a number of ideas for continuing to teach students about, and possibly naming specific school buildings after, the other suggested names.

Natasha Beery, BUSD community engagement director, who researched each of the possibilities and led the public process, will present the Mendez recommendation with advisory committee chair Grace Kong at Wednesday night’s board meeting. The board could choose to vote on May 30 instead.

Staff estimates the switchover will cost around $25,000, requiring signage changes, edits to the website, new stationery, notification to all departments and the city, and other tasks. The work is slated for the summer, and the district will plan a name-change celebration for the fall.

The decision will conclude a process that started in 2011 when LeConte began preparing to become a Spanish-English immersion school. Members of the school community raised concerns about the school’s namesake, Joseph LeConte’s, racist legacy. The celebrated UC Berkeley conservationist had owned slaves in Georgia, and continued writing and speaking about the “weakness” of black people for decades after the Civil War ended and he moved to Berkeley. In 1892, the year LeConte Elementary opened, LeConte gave a lecture on the “race problem,” maintaining that “the higher race must take control.”

A UC Berkeley building and a North Berkeley street continue to bear the LeConte name, after Joseph and his brother John, who was the university’s president.

Though the elementary school community, district staff and board members ended up expressing a near-unanimous belief that LeConte’s name didn’t belong on an educational institution, the renaming process was a lengthy one involving changes to BUSD policy and several public meetings. The school officially dropped the old name in November.

Ed. note: This story originally said the renaming effort began in 2012. Scott Byram, a historian and BUSD parent, shared a letter he wrote encouraging School Board members to make the change a year before.

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,...