‘Only the first step’: Campus considers unnaming Moses Hall

Photo of Moses Hall
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
Former campus professor Bernard Moses was influential in developing the social sciences, but a proposal from campus members states he saw white people as superior to mixed-race and Indigenous people, and that his beliefs were central to his work.

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A proposal to unname UC Berkeley’s Moses Hall is under consideration as its namesake’s legacy — including allegedly racist and white supremacist writings — comes under scrutiny.

The push to remove the name of 19th-20th century campus professor Bernard Moses from the building originated in the department of philosophy, which is housed in Moses Hall. The Building Name Review Committee, or BNRC, will now review the proposal, as it has in four previous unnaming processes in the last three years.

“Honoring Moses by having his name on the building is no longer consistent with Berkeley’s values,” said campus professor of philosophy Hannah Ginsborg in an email.

A committee of philosophy department graduate students, staff and faculty developed the proposal after significant discussion and research, according to Ginsborg, who chaired the committee. The proposal found that Moses openly held the belief that white people are superior to people of other races and that this belief was central to his work.

The proposal highlighted passages where Moses described Indigenous and mixed-race people and people of color as inferior to white people. In one instance, the proposal states that Moses justified the lynching of Black people as a possibly legitimate means of dealing with “emergencies.”

“Moses was a known racist and white colonizer, whose harmful actions and beliefs significantly outweighed any contributions he had ever made,” said ASUC Senator Stephanie Wong in an email. “While it is a great first step, unnaming is only the first step.”

The proposal also acknowledged that Moses was influential in developing the social sciences in the early years of the University of California. He created the department of history and political science in 1883 and helped create the department of political science two decades later, according to the proposal.

BNRC chair and campus professor of biochemical engineering David Schaffer declined to comment on whether he supported the unnaming of Moses Hall before the review process is complete, saying only that the proposal appeared factual and that the facts “speak for themselves.” He did, however, offer general insight into the renaming process.

“The mission is to assess whether particular building names are consistent with the mission, values and principles of our campus and our community,” Schaffer said. “Values that were not considered to be too concerning during that period of history are now things that our culture and society care a lot about.”

The BNRC is likely to make its recommendation to the chancellor soon after the public comment period ends, according to Schaffer. Selecting a new name for a building is a separate process from unnaming, he noted in a campuswide email.

Schaffer noted the unnaming process does not attempt to redact the historical record, and that records of unnaming discussions are preserved for posterity. These sentiments were echoed by Ginsborg, who added that the philosophy department plans to maintain information about Moses on its website and, potentially, an informational plaque if the building is unnamed.

“Rather than erasing history, we think that the unnaming proposal contributes to a better understanding of the history of the Berkeley campus,” Ginsborg said in the email.

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @gabeclasson.