Ah, San Francisco…greatly beloved since the very day of my sixteenth birthday, when, with the ink barely dry on my driver’s license, I sallied forth to begin years of rock concerts, strolls down Haight and Ashbury, cheap eats in Chinatown walk-ups, and long hours reading at City Lights Books. For me, the city represented open-mindedness, intellectual purity and broad literacy – a utopian future.
Until recently, that is.
Exhibit Number One: The powers that be on the school board with, I suspect, nary a humanities nor a history degree among them, are in the process of renaming 44 public schools named after presidents and other previously revered public figures newly and posthumously tarred as racists, including Abraham Lincoln. Didn’t Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation back in the day, say ‘round about 1863? Has anybody heard of it? Apparently not.
San Francisco has become the laughing stock of the nation with this bone-headed move. Of all the problems plaguing San Francisco’s schools, including dealing with a real plague, this nonsense has inexplicably risen, like rotten cream, to the top of the scholastic agenda. Exactly how crazy is the myopic rewriting of history likely to become?
The naming of public schools is at best an inexact science fueled by the historic and political whims of the day, both fleeting and enduring – enduring until they’re not, that is.
Public schools everywhere carry the names of presidents, lesser politicians, war heroes, and the like. The only names no one seems to object to are named after the towns and cities where they’re located, or after blameless geological or natural features immune to human meddling and rewrites. Think Spy Rock Elementary or Redwood High School.
So how does this historic demonization shake out in Mendo? I set out to take a bird’s-eye view of some of the county’s public schools named after either individuals or groups of individuals. (Disclosure: this is not a scientific, footnoted survey.)
Let’s start with Fort Bragg Unified, named after the much maligned and very politically incorrect Confederate Civil War General Braxton Bragg. Quite the brouhaha has arisen in Fort Bragg over its newly despised namesake, I even read a blog, apparently written by a Los Angeles resident, urging the good people of Fort Bragg to rise up and demand that the name of the alleged southern racist be forever banished from the seaside town, though I’m not sure another’s name could replace it now that Lincoln himself has been dubbed a racist. Perhaps it could be named something entirely different along the lines of Foggy Corners or Gentle Breezes.
Anyway, back to the schools…
Fort Bragg’s Dana Gray Elementary piqued my interest. Who was Dana Gray to be honored with the school’s name? I called the district office and was told by the cheerful woman who answered the phone that she had no idea who Dana Gray is or was. Thinking that the principal would surely know, she transferred me to his office. I left a message on his voicemail inquiring as to Dana Gray’s identity and left my phone number. He never called back; maybe he was embarrassed to admit that he had no idea who Dana Gray was, either. Left to my own less-than-FBI-grade research resources, I found many Dana Gray obituaries, none local. Wikipedia offered that Dana Sue Gray is an American serial killer who murdered three elderly women in 1994 and is currently serving her sentence in the California Women’s Prison in Chowchilla, which is in the Central Valley southeast of Merced and north of the town of Kismet (now there’s a naming story…). If Dana Sue Gray is the Dana Gray that the Fort Bragg elementary school is named after I think I’d prefer the Confederate general, though I can see how immortalizing a serial killer could appeal to the town’s criminal element. So…no dice on Dana Gray.
Ukiah’s Frank Zeek Elementary School intrigued me. It sounded promising since the school’s website stated that “A Frank Zeek Tiger is Peaceful, Responsible, Respectable, Safe.” Not properties I’d normally ascribe to a tiger but let’s not split hairs. Who exactly was Frank Zeek? Outside of routine school events, Google had never heard of Frank Zeek, dead or alive, a digital black hole as rare as a Texas vegetarian. There was one out-of-the-ordinary school bulletin from February of 2020 announcing that Frank Zeek was one of three Ukiah schools to be placed in lockdown due to “a law enforcement chase, in which the suspect fled into the hills west of Ukiah.” Maybe Frank Zeek was a cop.
Moving right along, what about Ukiah’s Pomolita Middle School? It’s not Spanish, one of my first thoughts, nor apparently some derivative of Pomo, a local Indian tribe whose members still live in Mendo today. I couldn’t confirm a linguistic connection between the two. Wikipedia stated simply that “Pomolita does not exist. You can ask for it to be created.” The Urban Dictionary defined Pomolita as “A ghetto for grades 6-8 in Ukiah, cali, usa (sic),” undoubtedly submitted by a young malcontent. Another entry noted the school’s unfortunate acronym, PMS. So…no joy for Pomolita’s origins. I’m sure that one of the county’s many local historians can clear this up, along with an identity for poor, unrecognized Frank Zeek.
I turned next to Blosser Lane Elementary School in Willits. WASP alert! It turns out the Blossers arrived in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066, prior to which the family resided in Blois, in the Loir-et-Cher region of France. Mon Dieu! One can only imagine the societal sins the family must have racked up between 1066 and when the Willits school was named. There were surely slaves, violence, sexism, and all manner of other skullduggery throughout those centuries. Worst of all, they were almost certainly all white, diversity wouldn’t be a gleam in anyone’s eye for centuries. Too far in the past, you say? Well if we can reach back and grab Honest Abe or Father George Washington from 150 to more than 200 years ago why not journey even further back to snag the Blossers? Perhaps the school board should look into it. I sense a gathering storm…
Then there is Baechtel Grove Middle School in Willits. Uh oh, I thought to myself, sounds German, sworn enemies of the United States in two world wars. This can’t be good, political correctness-wise. Think Nazis, death camps, gas chambers, medical experiments… The Baechtel family was first recorded in Fulda in 1387, with two branches expanding to Frankfurt in 1442 and 1568. Then there are the twentieth-century ancestors who built nuclear power plants through their privately held company of the same name (slightly different spelling). Two strikes loomed – all white with possible offshoots in the Third Reich, with nuclear fission peddlers to boot! The school board really needs to dig into this one.
Also in Willits there is Sanhedrin High School. To me an early beacon of fairness and the democratic process, this name could nevertheless give heartburn to born agains and holy rollers, to say nothing of those of the Moslem faith. That’s because the Sanhedrin were assemblies of Jewish elders appointed to sit on tribunals in every city in ancient Israel. Surely this flies today in the face of increasingly militant Christian denominations both in the state and the nation. And at the other end of the political spectrum true nonsecular Libs, if any still exist, would surely object to assigning a biblical reference to a public school charged with the separation of Church and State.
On the plus side of diversity and political correctness reside Nokomis and Yokayo elementary schools, both with Native American roots. Nokomis means “grandmother” in a Native American dialect and was also the name of Hiawatha’s grandmother in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha. He was a WASP, of course, a strike against him, but gets brownie points for retelling the Nanabozho stories. The Yokayo tribe inhabited the Russian River Valley beginning in the pre-Columbian era before being slaughtered by arriving white settlers.
Then there’s Ukiah’s Grace Hudson Elementary School, named refreshingly after a nationally recognized American artist born in Potter Valley in the late nineteenth century who created 684 portraits of local Pomo Indians. She was white but painted her portraits at a time when few acknowledged the legitimacy of Mendo’s Native American tribes, let alone featured them in popular art.
So beware that even though the hapless General Braxton Bragg is in the revisionist hot seat today, it could be anyone tomorrow. And if the winds are just right and it’s a slow social media day, any one of us (if we’re famous enough to have a school named after us), could be swept away in the flames of the latest history rewrite.
A lot of what we learned as kids back in the day was nationalistic pabulum – from Columbus “discovering” America to Indians preparing a Thanksgiving feast for the white arrivals who would shortly slaughter them and steal their land. But that’s no excuse to write equally inaccurate versions of history that better fit the shifting cultural sands of the moment. And a name ultimately changes nothing, even if it momentarily feels good.
I’m reminded of walking into a small local bookstore in Savannah, Georgia a few years back and asking the whereabouts of the shop’s Civil War section. The owner glared at me and said that there was no Civil War section, only a section on the war of northern aggression.
One thing stuck in my mind while reading about Thomas Jefferson years ago when it came to light that he had fathered a child with a black slave. Men of his time and class were unapologetic slaveholders. A key point the biographer made was not that Jefferson owned slaves, but rather that he came to believe, unlike his contemporaries, that slavery was wrong.