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To Shed Racist Past, UC Berkeley Renames Buildings

Far more than mere symbolic change, UC Berkeley’s renaming of several buildings has garnered diverse support, even from the families of the people whose names are being removed.

Over the past five years, a movement has grown at the University of California (UC), Berkeley that centers around the issues of identity and injustice that have swelled in recent times. The movement concerns the names and titles that UC Berkeley’s buildings have held for decades, and the cruel legacies they uphold. 

“I believe that language and names, both formal and informal, have deep meaning and can connect us to the past and set a trajectory for the future,” said James Ford, Chief of Staff to the Vice Provost of Academic Planning. He serves on the Building Name Review Committee, recently formed to “oversee proposals for un-naming a building, and ultimately make a recommendation to the Chancellor.” 

Thus far, the committee has decided to remove the names of four buildings, as requested by public proposals. One has been successfully de-named: the building now formerly known as Boalt Hall. The building was named for John Henry Boalt, who worked to dehumanize those of Asian descent at the turn of the 20th century, speaking out against Chinese immigration. His name has been stripped from the campus, acknowledged now with dislike rather than honor. Soon, those of Barrows, LeConte, and Kroeber will face the same fate.

Melissa Charles is one of the people who has worked to submit proposals to the Building Name Review Committee. As the Assistant Director for African American Student Development, she gives “holistic support for black people on campus.” Additionally, she worked to rename Barrows Hall as the Social Sciences Building. With co-worker Takiyah Jackson, she discussed her rationale for the decision — David Prescott Barrows’ promotion of white supremacy and his fervent colonialism. “Continuing to honor Barrows’ legacy… undermines the integrity of our university,” said Charles.

Barrows’ role as former UC Berkeley President and whatever advancements he might have made to the university pale in comparison to his racist and supremacist actions. Jackson and Charles are neither the first nor the only ones who support the un-naming of Barrows Hall. “The 2015 Black Student Union … came up with a series of demands which they gave to the Chancellor… to improve life for black folks on campus,” Charles recalled. “Thanks to their organizing and labor, the university was able to meet nine of the ten commands.” The tenth, and at that point unmet demand, was the de-appellation of Barrows’ name to the Social Sciences Building. The university failed to follow through with this last demand for bureaucratic reasons until late November of last year. A helpful catalyst was actually a letter of solidarity from an unlikely place — Barrows’ descendants. 

“[I] found myself in the unique position of not only being a UC Berkeley student during that period [of activism towards unnaming], but also David Barrows’s great great grandson,” said Alec Stewart, urban geographer and landscape historian. Stewart, along with twenty-four other members of his family, drafted and signed a letter denouncing his great-great-grandfather’s actions and supporting the demand to rename Barrows Hall. “When the Barrows Hall un-naming proposal was put forward this summer, the nation was already reckoning with its legacies of white supremacy,” said Stewart. “It was the right time to grapple with monuments to these legacies in the built environment. The convergence of these events made me feel a moral duty to step forward publicly.”

“These decisions are much more than symbolic change, although symbolic changes can be incredibly important and powerful,” said James Ford. Charles and Stewart also agreed that names are more than just words on the sides of buildings. “There is a power in what any given institution is choosing to uplift, what narratives … and what stories are being chosen to be seen as valuable or worthy of having a name,” said Charles. 

Paul Fine, a biologist who works on the Building Name Review Committee, echoed this sentiment. “Names reinforce power; they reinforce the status quo,” said Fine. 

As the United States reckoned with its history of racism last summer, Berkeley did the same. It remains an uncomfortable truth that this country’s past and present are riddled with atrocities, and although it’s important to remember history, these legacies are not the ones we wish to repeat. Yesteryear reaches us with too much influence already, and that is why people like Stewart and Charles have worked to take a stand against our troubled past.

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