Opinion: Berkeley is named after a slaveholder. It’s time to rename the city.

Bishop George Berkeley was a slave owner, racist, and colonialist, who was considered among the luminaries of Western philosophy at the time.

As many of you are likely aware, the board of the University of California Hastings College of the Law recently decided to change the school’s name. The decision was prompted, in part, by an article in the New York Times that examined how Serranus Hastings, the school’s namesake, played a significant role in the genocide of indigenous people in Northern California during the Gold Rush. Hastings was highly regarded in his time and served as Attorney General of California and as the first Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. The decision to change the school’s name was four years in the making and initially met with considerable resistance, including from the school’s dean, who publicly puzzled, “What would changing the name accomplish?”

Folks in Berkeley are no strangers to changing the names of buildings or institutions after coming to learn of the reprehensible actions or beliefs of its namesake. Such was the case, for instance, with brothers Joseph and John Le Conte, for whom a Berkeley elementary school and a hall on the University of California campus were named. The Le Conte brothers were highly regarded in their time and, among other things, were both professors at the university. But the brothers had owned a plantation and slaves, had served in the Confederate army during the Civil War before coming to Berkeley, and were outspoken racists and white supremacists. In May 2018, and despite the fact that the elementary school had been named “Le Conte” since 1896 (after Joseph), the Berkeley Unified School District changed the school’s name to “Sylvia Mendez,” a desegregation pioneer. Following suit, UC Berkeley removed “Le Conte” from the building on campus named for the brothers. In June 2020, BUSD went a step further, approving a resolution to rename Jefferson and Washington elementary schools, as both namesakes were slaveowners. 

The University of California has also removed the names of other individuals from buildings on its campus. In January 2020, the university removed John Boalt’s name from its law school due to Boalt’s racist and anti-immigrant legacy, including his involvement in the passage of California’s Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In November 2020, and on the same day it removed the “Le Conte” name, the university removed “Barrows” from the building on campus named for David Prescott Barrows, another outspoken racist and white supremacist. In January 2021, the university removed “Kroeber” from the hall on campus named after Alfred Louis Kroeber, based on his immoral and unethical collection of Native American remains.

As many of you perhaps are not aware, the city of Berkeley’s namesake, Bishop George Berkeley, was a slave owner, racist, and colonialist. Berkeley was highly regarded in his time, considered among the luminaries of Western philosophy. But when Berkeley came to America, he bought three slaves for his Rhode Island plantation and quartered them in the cellar of his “Whitehall” home. Berkeley’s writings include advice to fellow slaveowners to baptize their slaves – as “slaves would only become betters slaves by being Christian.” Berkeley’s writings express other repugnant ideas, including his proposal to open a missionary school for the purpose of converting the “American heathen.” Among the “heathen” to be converted were the children of “savage Americans,” whom Berkeley proposed to kidnap if peaceful methods of separating them from their parents proved unsuccessful. And it is Berkeley’s colonialist verse that inspired the naming of our city, and which today is commemorated by Founders’ Rock on the university campus: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way.” As with the names Le Conte, Washington, Jefferson, Boalt, Barrows, and Krober, there are ample reasons to remove the name “Berkeley” from our city. Plainly said, it’s time to rename the city.

There will be those who will oppose changing the name of the city of Berkeley. They will make various arguments, likely the same arguments made against previous name changes. At bottom, these arguments will boil down to purported concerns over 1) rampant “political correctness” and 2) the loss of the Berkeley “brand.” At bottom, both of these arguments are self-interested. The first argument is emotionally self-interested, an attempt to hold on to a particular view of oneself, the world, and of the past – a view that a name change threatens to upend. [And by the way, changing the name is not an attempt to make Bishop Berkeley (or anyone else from the past) live up to our moral standards – it’s an attempt to make us live up to our moral standards.] The second argument is financially self-interested, an attempt to maintain the value of an asset – a value which a name change threatens to dilute. Both arguments are also shortsighted – as there is so much more ultimately to be gained by changing the name than to be lost. If, in fact, there is anything that could truly be lost from changing the name. 

Which brings us back to the question posed by the dean of the law school formerly known as “Hastings” – What would changing the name accomplish? Changing the name would sever us from association with an ugly person, with ugly ideas and ugly beliefs. None of us want to be associated in any way with slavery, racism, or colonialism. And none of us should be compelled to be so associated because the city in which we live is named after a slave owner, racist, and colonialist. Changing the name would acknowledge that Black and Indigenous lives do matter. And that those lives matter not just in the present, or in the future, but in the past. A past we cannot change but which we can repudiate. Changing the name would be a way of saying, “Sorry.” Changing the name would right a moral wrong. Changing the name would be an act of love. Changing the name would improve our city. Changing the name might even change someone’s life. That’s what it would accomplish.

The past does not dictate the present unless we let it dictate. It’s time for us to move on from the past. The city of Berkeley, our city, is named after a slave owner, racist, and colonialist. It’s time for us to drop “Berkeley” from the name of our city.  

Daniel O'Connell, who has lived in Berkeley for nearly four decades, is a student at Berkeley City College.