Donor’s Views on Race Spark Outcry Over Parkland

Bobby White, Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2009

This town in the Sierra Nevada foothills accepted the gift of a 28-acre plot from the estate of Nobel laureate William B. Shockley in March. The mostly forested land was to become a community park named after the famous physicist–co-inventor of the transistor–and his late wife.

Then the local newspaper pointed out that Mr. Shockley, who died in 1989, was a proponent of eugenics, a widely discredited movement most prominent in the 1920s and ’30s that held that intelligence was racially linked–and that called for sterilizing some Americans who were deemed socially and intellectually unfit.

Community activists and civil-rights organizations are criticizing Auburn’s leaders for accepting the gift’s terms that the park carry the Shockley name, and they are demanding that the town keep Mr. Shockley’s name off the park or give the land back. {snip}

Officials in Auburn, a town of about 13,000 that is more than 90% white, said they didn’t know about Mr. Shockley’s eugenics ties at the time of the gift–and don’t support them–but still plan to go ahead with the park.

The controversy in Auburn offers a window into a debate occurring in communities across the country about whether to strip the names of prominent historical figures from parks, schools and other institutions because of those people’s views on race during earlier eras.

Last year, students at Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla.–named after a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard–made an unsuccessful bid to change the name of the school, whose student body is majority black. Also in 2008, student protesters called for Indiana University in Bloomington to drop the name of Ora L. Wildermuth from a gym after a book revealed the prominent Indiana judge, who died in 1964, advocated segregation; the name still stands.

In 2006, Davis, Calif., removed the name of John Sutter, a 19th century California explorer, from a city street after residents raised concerns about Mr. Sutter’s treatment of Native Americans; it is now named after a prominent Native American activist.

{snip}

Eugenics has become a particular strike against once-respected historical figures in California. Last year, community groups persuaded lawmakers to strip the name of Charles M. Goethe, a prominent Sacramento-area banker in the early 1900s and founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, from a large Sacramento County park; it is now River Bend Park. In 2007, Sacramento’s school board struck Mr. Goethe’s name from a middle school and renamed it after Rosa Parks.

“The point is to close these hurtful chapters in this country’s past” said Austin Aslan, a community organizer who campaigned against the Goethe name. “It’s part of the great reconciliation this nation is going through.”

{snip}

From the late 1960s until his death, Mr. Shockley publicly pushed his belief that there was a strong genetic component to intelligence that forms along lines of race. He also suggested that some people of below-average IQ be paid if they agreed to voluntary sterilization.

During a 1974 television interview, he gave what he called his “standard statement” to a questioner who asked if he thought blacks were of inferior intelligence: “The major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and thus not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in environment.” In the segment, viewable on YouTube, he denied being a racist.

{snip}

“This is not a racist town, but I’m concerned we may get labeled that way,” said Karen Tajbl, an Auburn resident. “They need to give the land back or rename the park. This man should not be honored.”

Auburn leaders say they don’t support Mr. Shockley’s views. But the city council and recreation department are planning to go ahead with the park under the Shockley name. “It’s a done deal. We are not giving the land back,” said Scott Holbrook, a recreation-district supervisor. “We aren’t racist.”

[Editor’s Note: An earlier story on this controversy can be read here. The story contains links to earlier reporting by the local paper attacking Shockley.]

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