News & Politics

School Board President: Remove Slaveholders' Names from Schools

Matt Haney, the president of the San Francisco Board of Education, wants to change the names of any schools bearing the name of  a slaveholder.

Board President Matt Haney said Tuesday he will introduce a resolution before the board this month to clarify the rules for renaming San Francisco schools with an eye to encouraging the communities at Washington High School, along with Jefferson and Monroe elementary schools, to consider whether they want to make a change.

“We need to have a conversation about this,” Haney said. “Especially at George Washington High School. We have school names in San Francisco that are not relevant or meaningful or inspire pride.”

“I would not want to speak for the school community,” Haney said. “It’s a very tricky issue. I’m trying to stay away from condemning anyone. It was a very different time back then. But slavery was America’s original sin.”

The school board has the ultimate authority over school names and Haney suggested Washington High School be replaced with Maya Angelou’s name.

The idea, Haney said, came to him while he was listening to a sermon Sunday by the Rev. Amos Brown at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco. Brown has long been incensed that the little-known third verse of the national anthem, written in 1814 by the anti-abolitionist Key, includes the lyrics,“ No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” and he devoted a fair chunk of his Sunday sermon to it. Brown had time to fill, as his invited guest speaker — 49ers quarterback and national anthem protester Colin Kaepernick — failed to appear.

Responses to Haney’s plans were mixed.

One individual writing under the name of “Mr. Mitchell” said:  “You —hole!!!!!!!!!”

Students at Washington High School didn’t care for Haney’s idea.

On the front steps of Washington High in the Richmond District, a group of students seemed generally opposed to the name change. Senior Brianna Rosales said the notion was “really offensive to us,” and junior Sierra Moulroney called it a “bad idea.”

A substitute teacher remarked that he is a “big fan of Maya Angelou, and I know this was her alma mater — but you don’t mess with George Washington.”

Another said, “This is the most ridiculous, politically correct farce I’ve heard.”

Are the schools’ names even a problem for the community?

“I can see where Matt Haney is coming from, but I don’t have any thoughts on this yet and I haven’t heard from anyone in the school community about it,” said Kim Adams, the principal at Jefferson Elementary in the Sunset District. She said it would be up to the “multiple stakeholders” at the school, and not to her, to push for such a change. But there were practical reasons the school might want to think twice.

“We just got 500 new Jefferson T-shirts, one for every student,” Adams said. “That’s a lot of shirts.”

But some people thought Haney was on the right track. “Change is needed and you are doing great in leading the way,” said one commenter.