UC Berkeley students call for renaming of campus buildings tied to Confederacy

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Daniel Chang/Staff

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Update 7/9/15: This article has been updated to reflect new information about the signing of the bill removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds.

Amid national debate about efforts to remove the Confederate flag, some are questioning why UC Berkeley has named campus buildings to honor Confederate slave owners and promoters of white supremacy.

Two buildings that have come under criticism are Barrows Hall, named after former UC Berkeley president David Barrows, and LeConte Hall, named after brothers Joseph and John LeConte, who played key roles in manufacturing munitions for the Confederate States Army. John LeConte was the first UC Berkeley president, and Joseph LeConte was a geologist and natural historian.

The criticisms have been brought to attention after the June 17 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, which prompted efforts to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds through a proposal that was passed this week in both chambers of the state legislature and signed into law Thursday.

In March, the campus’s Black Student Union sent Chancellor Nicholas Dirks a list of demands to implement institutional change on campus, one being to change the name of Barrows Hall to Assata Shakur Hall in honor of the black activist.

According to a press release from the BSU, Barrows was an “imperialist by way of anthropology and participated in perpetuating American colonialism,” and his name “directly opposes the mission” of the departments that are housed in the building, such as African American studies and gender and women’s studies.

“It’s a daily reminder that Black students are not respected on campus,” said Blake Simons, a member of the BSU, in an email. “It’s hypocritical of UC Berkeley to name a building after Martin Luther King, and then have buildings named after slave-owning racists and colonizers.”

The campus has a set of principles for naming properties and facilities to honor people who, according to university documents, “have made important contributions to enable the teaching, research and public service mission of the university.”

According to Andrew Szeri, campus vice provost of strategic academic and facilities planning, UC Berkeley’s Space Assignment and Capital Improvements Committee considers requests for naming and makes recommendations to the chancellor.

LeConte Hall, which is home to the physics department on campus, is not the only memorial in Berkeley that honors the LeConte brothers: There is a street and a public elementary school named after them as well.

“With recent events in Charleston and a lot of people paying attention to this issue, I do think this is a timely moment about these symbols of white supremacy or memorials of white supremacy,”said Lyndon Comstock, an amateur Berkeley historian and author of “On Parker Street,” a book detailing the history of the area south of Dwight Way, which is where LeConte Elementary School is located.

For Simons, the buildings on campus named after Barrows and the LeConte brothers are symbols of institutional racism at UC Berkeley, further represented by the lack of black people on campus.

“I was one of 365 undergrad Black men last year, and about half of us are being used for profit on the athletic field,” Simons said.

Szeri was unable to comment on the requests to rename LeConte and Barrows halls and said he had not yet gotten a chance to familiarize himself with the issue.

Contact Sujin Shin at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sujinjshin.