Last month, San Francisco’s Board of Education voted, 6–1, to change the names of forty-four schools, including schools named after Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. A committee formed by the board in 2018, in the wake of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, had determined that any figures who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” should no longer have schools named after them and had recommended which names should be changed. Washington’s name was struck because he held slaves, Lincoln’s because of his policies toward Native Americans. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s name will be removed from a school, owing to the decision, when she was San Francisco’s mayor, in the nineteen-eighties, to replace a Confederate flag that was part of a Civic Center display and had been taken down by a protester. (A spokesperson for Feinstein said that the city’s parks department replaced the flag “on its own accord.” She later had it replaced with a Union flag.) Some of the committee’s recommendations have received more criticismthan others: Paul Revere Elementary School will be renamed because of his role in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, an assault on a British fort that the committee claimed, incorrectly, was intended to colonize the Penobscot people.
On Tuesday, I spoke with Gabriela López, the head of the San Francisco Board of Education, about the decision. López, thirty, is a teacher who was elected to the school board in 2018 and chosen as president by her colleagues. In the last several years, San Francisco schools have repeatedly landed in the national news. In October, the school board halted the selective-admissions process at Lowell High School, which is known for its academic strength and has markedly low numbers of Black and Latino students. On Wednesday, the city of San Francisco sued the school board and the district, claiming that they lack a plan to reopen schools. (The superintendent said at a news conference that the school board and the district “absolutely have a comprehensive plan” for reopening.) In my conversation with López, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the controversies around reopening and renaming, including questions about how the committee made its judgments and how to view the legacies of complex historical figures.
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