If John and Joseph LeConte — scientist and one-time UC Berkeley president, respectively — were alive today, they would be happy to see their name plastered on a Berkeley elementary school, a UC Berkeley science building and various street signs on Northside. But they would also be denounced for being the bigots and white supremacists they were. As former slave owners and fierce supporters of the Confederacy, the LeContes do not deserve to have the honor of having buildings named after them bestowed upon them.
Amid the summer’s national debate on removing flags and other vestiges of the slave-owning Confederacy, there were also calls to rename Berkeley buildings that were named after former slave owners and other promoters of white supremacy. In particular, community members have rightfully raised concerns recently about the name of LeConte Elementary School.
The controversy behind keeping the LeContes’ name on buildings stems from their background as Southern academics who lost all of their property — including slaves — in the Civil War and moved to California to work for UC Berkeley shortly thereafter. But as vehement advocates of Southern slave-owning states’ rights, ammunitions providers for the Confederate States Army and outspoken critics of abolition, they were able to profit by depriving others of their humanity and denying other humans their fundamental rights. The University of California’s decision to hire him reflected the contemporary values of society: an acceptance of racism and a dismissal of someone’s loyalty to the Confederacy.
Yet these values are no longer held by our society, in which individual racism is now morally reprehensible but institutional racism is still a deplorable remnant of the country’s slave-owning history.
When both campus climate and relationships with city authorities, such as the police, remain tense for underrepresented minorities, especially in black communities, our failure to change the name of the school represents a missed opportunity to diminish the daily marginalization these groups face — and at no cost or harm to anyone else. And the UC Berkeley administration has not met the demands of the Black Student Union and the Afrikan Black Coalition to rename certain campus buildings: Barrows, named after a colonizer, and LeConte, named after the slave owners.
Buildings that have been named after racist icons remain symbols of this system and contribute to the experience of marginalization today. Removing the names would not change the history but would symbolically show our commitment to ending the marginalization of groups that still feel the lasting effects of slavery and segregation.
While some may feel that removing the LeContes’ name from the building takes away recognition of their academic and conservationist efforts or tries to erase our country’s slave-owning history, they are not considering that it does not remove their achievements from the historical record but rather strips the symbolic honor that having a building named after them affords.
While we cannot rewrite history, we also cannot ignore the present, in which black people and other underrepresented-minority communities are continually subjected to systemic marginalization in our society. Keeping the name of a building at the expense of bettering campus climate reveals a concerning prioritization of memorializing the past over providing for the future.