Column: The View From Here: Let’s Hear it for Sally Hemmings High School! By P.M. PRICE

Friday June 17, 2005

Jefferson, Washington, Longfellow, Emerson, Malcolm X—how much do our school children really know about any of these famous figures? Have they memorized any of Emerson’s poems? Can they quote Longfellow? Everyone is familiar with the “I Have A Dream” spe ech, but are our kids learning about Martin Luther King’s stance against the Vietnam war or the common ground he shared with Malcolm X? And speaking of Malcolm, have our students ever actually listened to his powerful oratory in their classes? Have they d iscussed the reasons for his rage or how his perspective shifted after his pilgrimage to Mecca? How meaningful are any of these school names? 

The parents, staff and students at Jefferson Elementary School have voted to trade in old Thomas for some Sequoi a trees. I probably wouldn’t be proud of attending a school named after such a hypocrite either. How could a man who wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” reconcile his advocacy for individual freedom with his owne rship of almost 200 human beings? Not only that, but with his fathering of five children with his own very personal property, Sally Hemmings—all of whom he kept as slaves until shortly before his death. Jefferson didn’t free his other slaves. Claimed he couldn’t afford it. Too much debt. So, they stayed and suffered and toiled and were sold off to other slave owners.  

In this regard, Jefferson was not unlike that other famous slave owner and Berkeley school namesake, George Washington. George Washington, along with his wife, Martha owned 317 human beings. Ninety-eight were children under the age of 12. Ninety-five were females age 13 and up. Eighty-four were males, age 13 and up. Some of these enslaved people were inherited, others were purchased. Washin gton is said to have believed in the “gradual abolition” of slavery. Unlike Jefferson, Washington did not free his slaves upon his death. He wanted Martha to be comfortable, so it took another three years until after her death before these 317 human being s would be freed from the shackles of slavery. 

I understand that Sequoia won out over Cesar Chavez, Ralph Bunche, Sojourner Truth and Florence MacDonald. Why is that? Were these brave activists too controversial? Too meaningful? Too reflective of the Berkeley community? And just what does Berkeley stand for, anyway? 

Well, it seems that Bishop George Berkeley, for whom our fine town is named, was a philosopher, mathematician, minister and—surprise!—just like Jefferson and Washington, a slave owner. Born in Ireland, George Berkeley developed a philosophy commonly referred to as “theological idealism.” Simply put, he believed that we exist in an immaterial world of ideas wherein everything is generated by consciousness. Perhaps the notion that blacks and I ndians were people, too, was beyond the realm of his consciousness. Berkeley supported slavery and came up with the bright idea of kidnapping Native American boys and taking them to Bermuda where he planned to indoctrinate them into Christianity without t he interference of their parents. He failed to get funding for this project so instead he bought a farm in Rhode Island, named Whitehall, and set up residence there with his wife, sons and slaves. Years later, he returned to England and left his farm, hom e and slaves to Yale University. Yale used the profits from free slave labor to fund scholarships for students excelling in Greek and Latin. These Berkeley-slave scholarships are still being awarded to this day. 

Does this bit of history mean that we shou ld change the name of our city as well? How about some of our streets, like Dwight Way for example? Timothy Dwight—coincidentally, a former Yale president—also owned a slave, a young girl. Imagine the terror in a young girl’s mind, standing alone before a n alien adult male who is greedily looking her over from head to toe, wanting her and then deciding to purchase her for his own private, unregulated use. I’m not saying that Dwight was a pedophile or a rapist but it did happen—was common, in fact, for sla vers to purchase girls and boys for their sexual fulfillment. Where do you think all of the “mulattos” came from? 

If we’re going to go through the time, trouble and expense of a public school name change, let’s make it meaningful! Of our 14 public school s, only one is named after a female. That school, Rosa Parks Elementary had to go through a name change, too. The meaningful word here is “change.” Like most schools across the nation, our schools were named for white males chosen by other white males. It is past time to update our definition of heroes to include more females and people of color and perhaps to discard some who do not measure up to today’s standards. If the idea behind Sequoia is to embrace a Native American tribe, that is not sufficient. It would be better to choose the name of an accomplished Native American individual than to select a name most people will identify with trees. But if Sequoia it is, let’s make it more meaningful by actually planting more trees in the working class neighb orhoods of West and South Berkeley which are seriously lacking in trees, parks and open space.  

And if we want to change any more school names, I vote for Sally Hemmings High or perhaps, if it’s not too late, Hemmings-Jefferson Elementary School. By hyphenating the two, we acknowledge the two worlds from which they came—the owner and the slave—irreparably interwoven, each with their own contradictions. Not unlike the rest of us.