Photograph by Trinity Graham
The Berkeley Unified School District School Board voted unanimously to remove the name “LeConte” from LeConte Elementary School on November 15th.
The vote was sparked by a petition to the review the appropriateness of the school’s name. The petition was signed by 179 members of the school’s community and submitted to the Board in May 2017.
When LeConte opened in 1892, Joseph LeConte, the school’s namesake, was an esteemed professor of geology, natural history, and botany at UC Berkeley. He was a well known author in the science community and an early member of the Sierra Club’s board of directors.
LeConte owned two hundred slaves with his brother, John LeConte. During the Civil War, he supplied munitions for the Confederacy. After the war, LeConte theorized about racial inferiority to rationalize segregation. He spoke of preserving the “higher race,” as well as “evolutionary” benefits to slavery.
In his book, The Race Problem in the South, LeConte wrote, “race repulsion and race antagonism is not a wholly irrational sentiment. It is an instinct necessary for the preservation of the purity of the blood of the higher race.”
LeConte fifth grade teacher Yusef Auletta said he explained to his students who LeConte was. He discussed both LeConte’s work in conserving California’s environment and his support for the Confederacy and beliefs about race. “I tried really hard to make sure I wasn’t giving my own perspective. I said, ‘Here are the facts,’” Auletta said. “Almost unanimously the kids were like, ‘I want to change the name of the school.’ But there were a few who were not. I wanted to make sure they didn’t feel ostracized for that.”
Since 2012, LeConte has been the district’s only two-way immersion school in Spanish and English. “They have a lot of intentional reflection within the community about what it means to be multicultural and multilingual. They’re building a very strong school culture around that. The desire for a new name is an outgrowth of that,” said Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program and Community Engagement. “Hopefully that name will continue to inspire them and reflect who they are as a school,” she continued.
Board President Ty Alper said, “Joseph LeConte was a man who used his considerable intellect, power, and authority to spread vile and far from universal views about the inferiority of races other than his own.”
“Even taking into account [LeConte’s] contributions to the conservation movement, I had very little hesitation concluding that, on the whole, his name is not an appropriate name to grace one of our schools,” Alper stated.
The removal of the school name is in accordance with the BUSD Board Policy and Administrative Regulation (AR) 7310. The AR says that in order for a name review process to begin, a petition requesting a review must be signed by the parents or guardians of at least one-third of the students enrolled in the school. The superintendent’s Executive Cabinet determined the LeConte petition met these requirements, and announced this to the Board on June 28, 2017.
Following AR 7310, “LeConte Elementary School” will serve as a placeholder name until a new one has been decided. An advisory committee will be formed to recommend one or more new names to the Board.
The committee will be comprised of students, staff, parents, guardians, and school neighbors. The committee will host three community meetings; one to alert people that a naming process has begun, another to solicit potential names, and the last to receive feedback on the names under consideration.
In order for the Board to vote on the proposed name, at least three fourths of the advisory committee must vote for it. The advisory committee is set to recommend a name within six months of its forming. If it does not deliver a recommendation after six months, the superintendent will propose a name to the Board.
Auletta expressed hope for the process. “As the school transitions into being a fully two way immersion program, it would be great to have a name that reflects the mission of the school,” he said. Auletta said that in class discussions, his students favored having a school that was not named after a person. The most popular name they came up with was “Escuela Arcoiris,” or “Rainbow School.” “My only concern is that the process is done in a way that everyone is heard,” Auletta said.
Alper concurred, stating that he hopes to see an inclusive process in the selection of a new name. He also said he hopes other communities would follow Berkeley’s rejection of white supremacy.
While there has been talk of possibly renaming other BUSD schools, the Board has said they will not consider renaming another school until the LeConte process is completed.