Placer Park Gift Comes With Troubling Catch: The Name of Shockley

Stephen Magagnini, Sacramento Bee, May 18, 2009

A rare gift of 28 acres of wild forest just north of the city limits has sparked charges of racism and has pitted environmentalists against social activists.

The land known as Shockley Woods was bequeathed to the Auburn Recreation District with $50,000 for upkeep and one condition: It must be named for a man who believed African Americans are inferior and should be paid not to reproduce.

Before most of the district’s board realized Shockley–winner of the Nobel Prize in 1956 for co-inventing the transistor–had another, more troubling side, the board voted 3-2 to accept the gift from Shockley’s estate. They also agreed to the name: “Nobel Laureate William B. Shockley And His Wife Emmy L. Shockley Memorial Park.”

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While 28 acres of open space may be hard to come by, Auburn resident Karen Tajbl said that in 2009, the Shockley name is too high a price to pay, even if it comes with a disclaimer.

“Public lands should not have strings attached,” Tajbl said. “Would the (recreation district) accept 1,000 acres of open space on the condition it be named ‘William Joseph Simmons Park?’ ”

Some might not realize Simmons was one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan unless they Googled him, Tajbl said.

“I sure don’t like naming a park after a racist; no one does,” Holbrook said. “But on the other hand, they (the Shockleys) are dead. . . . What happens if we ignore the request of the estate and call it whatever we want? I don’t know if the estate police come after us.”

William Shockley died in 1989, Emmy Shockley in 2007. Kathleen Golden of the Wells Fargo Wealth Management Group, which administers the Emmy L. Shockley Trust, said the park’s 13-word name was Emmy’s wish.

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“It looks like a Hansel and Gretel forest to me,” said Pamela Vann, the district’s landscape architect, as she peered into the dense, dark woods. “It’s a beautiful property and has a lot of potential for passive uses, such as trails and picnic spots.”

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At the recreation district’s April 30 board meeting, 30 citizens debated the name. Several environmentalists backed the gift, name and all, because it protects the land from development.

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Another who backed the gift, Larry W. Smith, organizes Auburn’s Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. He said he heard Shockley give a eugenics speech in Palo Alto in the early 1970s.

[Editor’s Note: Readers may find interesting the reporting on this gift. The earliest stories can be found listed here.]

[Editor’s Note: This seems to be one of the stories that “broke” the news that William Shockley was just too despicable a person for a park to be named after him. The article by Michelle Miller-Carl mentioning Shockley’s “racism” does not appear to be on-line.]

No doubt about it. William Shockley was one of the smartest humans on the planet.

He was the co-winner of a Nobel Prize in 1956 for his groundbreaking work on transistors and Time magazine chose him as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

He was also a racist who thought whites were intellectually superior to blacks and, because of his standing in the scientific community, became the go-to genius for white supremacists and Nazis to point toward when looking for some supportive comments from the academic world.

By what seems to be a quirk of circumstance, his estate included 28 acres of undeveloped land in Auburn and after his widow died in 2007, it was offered to the Auburn Recreation District as a passive park site.

The bequest was approved last week by the board, without any discussion on its donor’s racism.

This past week, Journal News Editor Michelle Miller-Carl wrote a story about the parks district’s acceptance of the forested land off Auburn Ravine Road and did a Wiki search on the Web to find out more about the famous benefactor. Some disturbing facts about Shockley emerged to go with the story of his landmark scientific discovery.

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His list of enemies was a long one, including the two scientists who shared the Nobel with him. Shockley’s name isn’t on the Bell Labs patent for that first transistor because he lightly oversaw the actual work. He did go on to develop a different, more effective transistor that became the foundation for the electronic age.

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EUGENICS PROPONENT

Shockley began to publicly embrace the theory of eugenics in the 1960s and became one of its most prominent proponents. Technically speaking, eugenics is the name of a movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating.

Some of Shockley’s proposals were shockingly discriminatory. It was recorded that he didn’t dislike blacks and didn’t advocate discriminating against them, but advocated stopping compensatory programs for educating African Americans because of what he believed was their genetic inferiority. {snip}

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Shockley died in 1989, despised by even his own family. His children were estranged and read about his death in newspaper obituaries, his biographer said. His wife, Emmy, lived until 2007.

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BEQUEST REQUIREMENT

Well, it comes down to a requirement of the bequest. To receive the 28 acres, the recreation district board had to agree to name the park “Nobel Laureate William B. Shockley and his wife Emmy Shockley Memorial Park.”

The board debated the cost of upkeep before voting 3-2 in favor of accepting the gift, plus $50,000 to help maintain the land. But Shockley’s casual bigotry and racism were never addressed.

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Director Gordy Ainsleigh, who favored the bequest, said he was probably the only board member who knew about Shockley’s eugenics views. But he decided not to mention them to the others.

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Media Life gave Ainsleigh an opportunity to respond to criticism that naming the park after Shockley would be a serious mistake.

AINSLEIGH COMMENTS

Here are his unedited comments. You can judge for yourself:

“Regarding Dr. Shockley’s views on genetics: It is a solid scientific fact that the genetics of all life forms, from bacteria to humans, are formed by the environment in which our ancestors existed and survived.

“For instance, in Norway, where many of my genes come from, you see a remarkable ability to produce an organized and orderly home, community and society, because people who wouldn’t or couldn’t function cooperatively simply were weeded out of the gene pool by the severe winters. Italy, on the other hand, has a much kinder climate that didn’t weed out those who were less organized and acted spontaneously on emotion. Italy’s government doesn’t work nearly as well as Norway’s does, but Norway didn’t produce Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, either.

“So Shockley’s view that blacks from equatorial Africa have different genetic abilities than whites from northern Europe is unquestionably correct. Where I disagree with Shockley is in his narrow definition of intelligence. Is the proof of intelligence a government that functions intelligently, or the presence of geniuses like Michelangelo and Leonardo?” Ainsleigh wrote.

“DIFFERENT TIMES”

“It’s also important to judge people by the context of their times and society. Shockley died of old age twenty years ago. He grew up and spent his most productive years in a world where blacks were not allowed to fight beside whites in the military, sit at the same table, or use the same toilet. And all the commanding officers were white. Shockley was a product of his society, and perhaps didn’t evolve as fast as his society evolved–a very common human trait.

“Still, he is a Nobel Laureate, and I trust the Nobel committee enough to believe he deserved that prize just as much as Linus Pauling, Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck. With all Shockley’s awkward realities, Auburn is honored to have been the home of the family that produced a Nobel Laureate.

“Colfax has managed okay after being named after one of the most notorious scoundrels in American political history. I’m sure we will do fine with a park named after a Nobel Laureate who was ahead of his time in electronics and behind his time in sociology.”

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