Election Section

Commentary: Jefferson School: What’s the Rush? By ROB BROWNING

Tuesday June 14, 2005

Suddenly the proposal to change the name of Berkeley’s Jefferson School because Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder is at full boil. First broached over a year ago, the idea seems to have lain fallow until about a month ago. In a very short time the process for deciding the question has leapt forward with virtually breakneck velocity. 

The proposed change may be the right thing for Berkeley. Our community—and most particularly our children—may gain more than will be lost if we make such a change. Or maybe not. In any case, the question has already had its “first reading” at the School Board, where the decision will ultimately be made. 

There are some, I know, who feel as I do that such a decision should engage the larger Berkeley community—not just that tiny minority who happen today to be directly affiliated with Jefferson School. It would be well for the School Board to hear from them pronto. The accelerated clock hasn’t quite made the decision for us yet. The larger community, including the current “Jefferson School community” and, importantly, the School Board, deserve the time to achieve a fuller understanding of this complex issue than I think has been possible to date. 

When I first learned of the proposal last year, I prefaced some published comments (Berkeley Daily Planet, March 2-4, 2004) by noting that the shame felt by those whose ancestors held slaves must be nothing beside the pain of those whose ancestors were slaves. This is a reality that I believe Americans considering this difficult subject should never forget. Indeed, the dark legacy of slavery is a subject we neglect at our peril. 

The process for deciding the name-change question would certainly have interested Jefferson himself, champion of democracy that he was. What is that process? 

Following some internal deliberations at the school but apparently without any organized informational process or effort to engage the broader Berkeley community, a poll of the school’s current teachers, students, and their families was held in April to select a favored alternative in the event that the name-change proposal were to go forward. The name “Sequoia” was selected from a list of other alternatives. 

Finally, on May 17, with minimal publicity, an “informational” meeting was held at the school. 

Out of my interest in the subject, I attended that meeting, the stated goal of which was to provide “An opportunity to have thoughtful, inclusive, and informative discussion on a provocative question, and to hear as many divergent perspectives as possible within the timeframe.” The agenda promised 15 minutes each for prepared presentations by those favoring “Changing the name to Sequoia” and those favoring “Keeping the current name: Jefferson.” Not surprisingly the meeting was largely an occasion for those who favor renaming the school to air their case against Jefferson. 

Those favoring the change offered a well-prepared and moving case based on Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and on their impression that he had not acted to end slavery. In their 15 minutes they quoted from Jefferson’s own account of his ordering an offending slave flogged and from writers who have faulted Jefferson for not acting effectively to end slavery. At the core of their presentation were the strong feelings of a teacher at the school, who regards the school’s name as an affront to herself and to all members of the school community who are black. There is of course no arguing with feelings, and hers are shared by several others—both white and black—who endorsed her position. 

The 15 minutes allotted to “keeping the current name” were wholly given to Robin Einhorn, a rather antic UC historian, who breezily announced at the outset that she did not intend to “make the case for Jefferson” but informed her listeners that those who make that case base it on the Declaration of Independence. She misinformed them that the Declaration was written not by Jefferson but “by a committee,” read from the Declaration, and—perhaps six minutes into her allotted 15—sat down. It was by any standard a feeble gesture, veering witlessly close to mocking the gravity of the subject. Although there were several there who favored “keeping the current name,” the occasion’s organizers had not secured anyone to prepare that case and in the considerable time remaining for that purpose none were invited to extemporize it. 

In the wake of the meeting’s oddly unbalanced presentation, it was, naturally, difficult for those who favor keeping the name to speak out. Most of those attending are not scholars of the subject and had doubtless come simply hoping for some information. 

They might of course have been told the truth—that Jefferson did in fact write the Declaration of Independence, that its final form does indeed embody a number of revisions by the committee of which he was a member as well as by the full Continental Congress, that among their revisions were the removal of Jefferson’s language calling for an end to the slave trade. They might have been told that Jefferson wrote and supported legislation against slavery on numerous occasions throughout his life, probably more deliberate legislative efforts in that cause than were made by any of his contemporary “founding fathers.” “This abomination must have an end,” he wrote. “And there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it.” They might have been told that Jefferson regarded slavery as an “abominable crime,” an “infamous practice,” that he agonized over his having inherited a role in the “evil” system and declared that “there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach in any practicable way.” They might have been told that Jefferson felt that by taking unilateral action—freeing his slaves—he would merely diminish his own influence without achieving the broader purpose of universal emancipation, that so long as slavery persisted his duty was to work where he could for “the deliverance of these, our suffering brethren,” and to “endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, [and] require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen.” 

Those attending the meeting might have been reminded that it was Jefferson who insisted that the U.S. Constitution include a Bill of Rights, that the very processes that have most dramatically moved our democracy forward—including such landmark achievements as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—grew directly out of Thomas Jefferson’s thought, his insistence on broadening democratic institutions at every opportunity. They might have been reminded that Jefferson’s words were tellingly invoked by both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King in their struggles for racial equality, Lincoln most famously in the Gettysburg Address (1863), King exactly a century later in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963). 

Would such facts have counterbalanced the facts about Jefferson the slaveholder and the strongly expressed feelings of those favoring the change? It’s hard to say. In public discourse feelings have a way of trumping facts. 

Less than a week after the meeting the “Jefferson School community”—again consisting only of current students, their families, and teachers at the school—were asked to choose between retaining the name Jefferson or exchanging it for Sequoia. The larger Berkeley community—interested citizens in general, including former Jefferson students, parents, and teachers—were not asked their views. 

What should our larger Berkeley community, which devotes so much time and energy to encouraging fair and open process, do about this? For over two hundred years Thomas Jefferson has been generally regarded as the world’s leading apostle of democracy. It seems at the very least worth noting how shabbily democracy was served on this occasion. 

And what about the feelings of those like the Jefferson School teacher who so movingly stated her case? I think we honor those feelings by doing all we can to create an educational climate that acknowledges the complexity of human experience. The case of Jefferson is not simple. It does a severe injustice to our children to lead them to think so. As thoughtful citizens, as parents, as teachers, we have a job to do. The job is not to hand our children a politically correct point of view. The job is to help them open their minds to realities, even to sometimes contradictory, painful, ambiguous, or conflicting realities, to help them to think for themselves. That is the job that Thomas Jefferson foresaw when—as the first statesman to do so, not just in the US but in the world—he promoted universal publicly supported education as an essential foundation of democracy. In his lifetime he failed to bring that vision to fruition, just as he failed to develop a workable plan for universal emancipation. It is foolish, and dishonest, not to honor him for the attempt, just as we honor him for so much else that is best in our imperfect but not perhaps utterly hopeless heritage. 

All this leaves us with some questions: 

• Should the name-change process involve only those who happen to be associated with the school at a given time or should it involve the larger Berkeley community? 

• Should the only “informational” public meeting about the name-change question be held at the end rather than at the beginning of such a process? 

• What role, if any, should children in kindergarten through fifth grade play in the process? 

• If the contemporary—and temporary—“Jefferson School community” is indeed the appropriately exclusive group for deliberating on the question, should they be given balanced information and more than a week in which to come to a decision? 

• Should the School Board give itself time—say six months or so—to hear from the wider community, in hopes of understanding all the issues on a very complex question, before concluding this process? 

Changing the name of Jefferson School to that of a tree would certainly not be the worst thing Berkeley ever did. It may even be the right thing to do. But to do it on the basis of partial or wrong information or out of a process that lacks broad-based community consideration would, I think, be unwise. 


Rob Browning is a Berkeley resident and former editor of UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Papers.