On Thursday, December 10, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board voted to rename Jefferson Elementary School after Ruth Acty, the first Black teacher employed in the district. Members of the board planned the name change in June of 2020, following the death of George Floyd and the upsurge in Black Lives Matter protests. The namesake of the school was previously Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and known owner of enslaved people. The school decided it was time for a change. Washington Elementary will also be renamed in the near future, for similar reasons.
“There was a Black Lives Matter Resolution brought forward by the board with a number of elements to it, to address issues of structural racism in BUSD, and the issue of renaming Jefferson and Washington School was one part of that resolution,” explained Natasha Beery, the Director of Communications for BUSD and the Superintendent’s liaison to the Naming Advisory Committee.
The Berkeley School Board voted to make the change in the summer before the 2020-21 school year, and had around three months to put this plan into action. They decided to use the same process that was used when changing the name of Sylvia Mendez Elementary from LeConte Elementary — by asking the community for who they would like to see represented as a symbol of BUSD’s values.
Ruth Acty, the new namesake of the former Jefferson Elementary, was the first teacher of color in all of BUSD. “There was a real desire to do something that was connected in some way to our community if possible, and Ruth Acty taught in our schools,” said Beery.
Acty grew up in West Oakland, attended the University of California, Berkeley, and attempted to join the BUSD staff in 1939. However, the superintendent at the time refused to employ her due to her race, and left the over five thousand Black residents with no school representation for another four years. In 1943, after hard work from activists, Acty was finally given a job teaching kindergarten at Longfellow, which was an elementary school at the time. She taught for the district for 48 years, fighting hard to implement a more diverse history curriculum that would represent students of color, as well as encouraging staff diversity.
Now, 22 years after her death, there will be a school in her name, honoring the hard work she did to change practices within BUSD.
Beery believes that Acty represents a defiance of racism, and renaming Jefferson after her would help bring representation of women in the names of BUSD schools as well. Currently, only 3 of the 20 schools in BUSD are named after women, including the recently renamed Sylvia Mendez, according to Beery.
Other candidates on the shortlist for the renaming consisted of Ruby Bridges, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Betty Reid Soskin, Yoshiko Uchida, Maya Angelou, and Muwekma Ohlone. To decide between the candidates, the committee tasked with the renaming of Jefferson received over one hundred submissions of ideas before narrowing it down to those seven. They then formulated slideshows for each of the top names and voted. Ruth Acty had been previously suggested and was the runner-up in the vote for the renaming of Sylvia Mendez, and she left an impression.
The board’s plans to rename Washington Elementary will not begin immediately, but a change is on the horizon. Beery thought that choosing Acty as the symbol for what was once Jefferson Elementary may send a message to the students of BUSD about who to look up to, and that they too could make a change in the world. “There’s all kinds of heroes,” she said. “Heroes are little kids who go to school, heroes are teachers, heroes are the people who take out the trash. They’re just all kinds of ways in which we can contribute to our community and that’s what I love about the fact that we chose Ruth Acty, she was an extraordinary ordinary person.”