Race Collides With History In Effort to Rename School

Tuesday April 15, 2003

A group of teachers and parents at Jefferson Elementary School are pushing to rename the building, citing concerns with Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding past. But critics, including some parents, call the move shortsighted. 

“You want to put a hole in this guy who people hold up as a hero — who’s going to be left?” said parent Mark Piccillo, annoyed at the renaming effort. “I pick my battles and this is one I’m going to fight.” 

First-grade teacher Marguerite Hughes said she’s not interested in “Jefferson-bashing.” But she said it would be insensitive to leave the name of a slaveholder on a building with a large black student population. 

“I think it’s important to think about how students feel about the school, and even teachers,” said Hughes. “As an African American, it’s not a small thing that Jefferson was a slaveowner.” 

To change the school name, proponents will have to get 20 percent of parents, 20 percent of staff and 20 percent of students to sign petitions pushing the idea. Once the community settles on a new name, a majority of each group will have to vote in favor of the change and win final approval from the Board of Education — a process likely to take at least a year. 

District officials, wrestling with a major budget crisis, are not lining up behind the nascent movement. 

“With the school district giving notices to 200 teachers, students of many cultures struggling to comprehend English and a community working hard to save programs in these difficult budget times, changing the name of a school site is not high on my list of priorities,” said Superintendent Michele Lawrence in a statement. “Right now, our time would be better spent on these immediate issues.” 

Even school board Director Terry Doran, a progressive stalwart, is taking a wait-and-see attitude. 

“I think it’s appropriate to look at that, but I don’t have strong enough feelings at this point to participate in a movement to change the name of the school,” he said. 

Robert Middlekauff, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of American history, said the legacy of Thomas Jefferson — slaveowner, Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence — is a complicated one. 

“All historians and students recognize that Jefferson was a slaveholder, but they also recognize that he was one of many, and his life, his career, his contributions to the Revolution were of another order,” Middlekauff said. “I think Jefferson is generally held in very high regard.” 

Philip Broaddus, parent of two children at the school, cited Jefferson’s contributions in defending the current name. 

“They should give Jefferson more due for what he did,” said Broaddus. “I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation if Jefferson hadn’t included those inalienable rights in the Constitution.”  

Piccillo noted that Martin Luther King, Jr., one of his heroes, was an adulterer and alleged plagiarist. King, he said, is still worthy of praise and the same should hold for Jefferson. 

“I don’t think you can compare adultery and slaveholding,” Hughes replied, drawing a sharp distinction between personal failures and holding human beings in bondage. 

“We’re not saying [Jefferson] can’t be people’s hero,” she continued. “All we’re saying is you can have that viewpoint with your life experiences, but I can’t do that, as an African American, with my life experience.” 

If a name change goes through, Jefferson Elementary would not be the first Berkeley school to take on a new identity. A few years ago, parents and staff at Columbus Elementary School decided to rename the building Rosa Parks Elementary School and won board approval.  

There wasn’t much controversy at the time over taking down the “Columbus” sign, but there was a heated battle over whether to name the largely black and Hispanic school after Rosa Parks or Cesar Chavez. 

Jefferson parent and name-changing advocate Dora Dean Bradley said the naming process at her school is wide open, but she mentioned a few possibilities, including Ohlone Elementary, after the nearby Ohlone Park, and Rose Street Elementary, after a nearby avenue. 

“We want to have something more positive now for Berkeley,” Bradley said. 

Whatever the final name, opponents raise concerns about a district policy which has elementary schoolchildren weighing in on the process. 

“If the kids get set up for it, I know how they’re going to vote,” Broaddus said. 

But Beverly Thiele, one of the teachers pushing for a name change, said the vote would be fair. 

“We’re certainly not going to go around and grab kids by the collar and say this is what you have to do,” she said.