How the ‘home of free speech’ veils a dark, violent past

Buildings like LeConte Hall have drawn protest for their glorification of figures in the campus's dark history
David Chang/File

Hidden behind its legacy of activism and cutting-edge research lies another story of UC Berkeley — a darker story. Tainted by the deaths of thousands of civilians and blatant acts of human exploitation, it is a history that challenges the moral high grounds the university claims to uphold.

That story begins on March 23, 1868, when California governor Henry Haight signed the charter founding the UC system.

The university, along with the surrounding city of Berkeley, was developed on what was once Ohlone territory. In West Berkeley, researchers continue to find remnants of an ancient Shellmound and burial site of the Ohlone people.

The tribe’s history in the Bay Area has sparked some outlandish rumors, including the legend that human remains are stored inside the Campanile.

While this rumor has been disproven, the bones of nearly 12,000 Native American people are currently stored below Hearst Gym. Beginning in the early 1940s, the university began housing the remains of many of California’s indigenous tribes, believing that they were preserving the final fragments of a dying history.

However, to the indigenous people of these “dying” histories, the university has not preserved their story, but rather it continues to disrespect their ancestors by utilizing their remains as research materials. In one case, a university researcher destroyed a bone from an Ohlone tribe member in order to analyze the tribe’s diet.

The tale thickens in the legal battle over the rights to these human bones. Under the federal repatriation law, the bones are to be returned to the lineal descendants of the tribe once researchers trace artifacts back to a specific tribal group. Yet, since the majority of state tribes are not federally recognized, the tribes’ entitlement to the bones cannot be verified. So, instead of receiving a proper burial, the bones are kept in plastic bags or old newspapers, and — with blatant disregard for Indian burial practices — skulls are stored separately from the rest of the skeleton to maximize storage, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

In 1990, the state government proposed a bill that would expedite the process of returning to the bones to their rightful descendants. The University of California actively lobbied against this bill, however, with the concern that it would hinder scientific research.

While the university has apologized for the negligent treatment of these skeletal remains, a dark history of indigenous erasure still lurks behind these campus walls — less than 3 percent of the university’s artifact collection has been returned to its rightful owners.

The university’s exploitation of indigenous peoples continues in the more well known tale of Ishi, the indigenous man thought to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe after the Three Knolls Massacre in 1866. Ishi was found wandering Oroville, California, by local police in 1911 and was delivered to UC Berkeley anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Waterman. They gave him the name “Ishi,” the Yahi word for “man,” as Ishi — afraid they might steal his real name — refused to reveal his identity.

For the next five years, he worked as a living display in the Museum of Anthropology, where he taught wide-eyed visitors how to make bows and arrows and was meticulously studied by the anthropologists. There is no record that Ishi, whose true identity is still unknown, had any say in his living conditions.

“Ishi requested that upon his death, his body be cremated in order to free his soul… campus doctor Saxton Pope removed Ishi’s brain and sent it to the Smithsonian Institution so that it could be used for eugenics-based research.”

After contracting tuberculosis in 1916, Ishi requested that upon his death, his body be cremated in order to free his soul. Although Kroeber communicated Ishi’s wishes in a detailed letter, campus doctor Saxton Pope was permitted to perform an autopsy since Kroeber was away from the university at the time of Ishi’s death. During the autopsy, Pope removed Ishi’s brain and sent it to the Smithsonian Institution so that it could be used for eugenics-based research.

A history stained red

The twisted tale of Berkeley’s past does not end with Ishi’s death. In 1931, Ernest Lawrence founded the Radiation Laboratory — or “Rad Lab,” for short. With his creation of the cyclotron, Lawrence turned the university into one of the birthplaces of the most deadly weapon used against a human population: the atomic bomb.

The cyclotron works like a swing, using a magnetic field to bend charged particles and gradually increase their speed with each passing cycle, thereby magnifying their energy. Convinced that the apparatus could separate the fissionable isotope uranium-235 from the more abundant uranium-238, Lawrence realized the war-making potential of his work. In 1941, two years after the war broke out, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project, transforming the Rad Lab into the research site for the atomic bomb.

Berkeley had become the epicenter for research in nuclear physics, as UC Berkeley chemistry professor Glenn Seaborg made his own discovery of element 94, plutonium. Like uranium-235, plutonium is a fissionable element that Seaborg theorized could be reactive enough to maintain explosive chain reactions — the kind of explosions necessary for an atomic bomb.

“On Aug. 6, 1945, Lawrence’s bomb devastated Hiroshima, and on Aug. 9, 1945, Seaborg’s bomb left Nagasaki in ruins.”

By 1945, UC Berkeley professors had two competing designs for the nuclear weapon. Uranium-235 was thought to be more reliable than plutonium, so they decided to use plutonium for the test-detonation and save the uranium for war.

On July 16, 1945, Lawrence and his team successfully completed a test-detonation in the deserts of New Mexico. After witnessing the formidable test, Lawrence began to question the ethicality of his creation, suggesting that the United States military detonate the bomb solely as a demonstration of their weapons capacity. Yet, he ultimately was persuaded otherwise; on Aug. 6, 1945, Lawrence’s bomb devastated Hiroshima, and on Aug. 9, 1945, Seaborg’s bomb left Nagasaki in ruins.

By Aug. 15, 1945, Japan had surrendered, the Allies had won the war in the Pacific, and UC Berkeley’s history was forever stained red with the blood of 200,000 innocent Japanese civilians.

Stories tucked away in campus walls

Fast forward to present day, and the echoes of that violent history are still present in the halls of campus buildings: Barrows, LeConte and Boalt halls. These names present a painful irony; students, commonly compelled to serve as advocates for social justice, are instructed in buildings named after racists and white supremacists.

Barrows Hall is named after David Barrows, a former UC Berkeley president and known white supremacist. LeConte Hall, meanwhile is named after brothers John and Joseph LeConte, who were involved with munitions manufacturing for the Confederate States Army. Joseph LeConte stated in his autobiography that the “sudden enfranchisement of the negro without qualification was the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people.” And Boalt Hall is named after judge and attorney John Boalt — who helped pass the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Although these histories remain veiled behind UC Berkeley’s prestige and progressiveness, the dark secrets of the university’s past have not been forgotten. They resonate through the cries of student activists, who demand the university reconcile its past abuses that torment the halls of Barrows and LeConte halls, Hearst Gym and the entire institution.

Maybe once the university fully reconciles its chilling narrative, the souls of the indigenous people, victims of the atomic bomb and all others made to suffer in university’s history will finally lay to rest.

Contact Arianna Moss at [email protected].