Parents, students and teachers at Berkeley’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary School will soon vote on whether to rename their school because the nation’s third president was a slave owner.
The question of whether to rename the school has been debated for more than two years—since several teachers, including an African American mother of three former Jefferson students, said Jefferson’s moniker offended them and suggested a name change.
Contenders for the new name included Ralph Bunche, the African American diplomat at the United Nations who was the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize; farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez; and Florence McDonald, the late Berkeley city councilwoman, leftist political leader and mother of singer Country Joe McDonald.
Other names suggested were Sojourner Truth, a woman who fled slavery in New York in 1828 and became one of the best-known abolitionist orators; Ohlone—for the indigenous people who lived in Berkeley before European settlers arrived; Peace; Rose; and Sequoia.
Marguerite Talley-Hughes, a kindergarten teacher at Jefferson who is African American, said she thinks it is reasonable to want a name that is not offensive to some in the school community.
“It’s very clear that the name is offensive to a significant part of the population,” said Hughes, who lives in the neighborhood and sent her own three children to Jefferson.
“There’s no reason we can’t have a name that everyone likes and can feel good about,” she said.
Jefferson Elementary School is not the first to go through such a process. In 1999, Columbus Elementary School in West Berkeley was rebuilt after it was found to be seismically unsafe, and it was renamed Rosa Parks Elementary School—but only after intense debate about whether Cesar Chavez was a better alternative.
Also, James Garfield Middle School was renamed after Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and Abraham Lincoln Elementary School was renamed for Malcolm X in the 1970s.