UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall is no more, its name removed from the law school today (Thursday, Jan. 30), campus officials announced. The denaming — the outcome of a nearly three-year process launched after a Berkeley lecturer discovered the racist writings of John Henry Boalt, a 19th century Oakland attorney — is the first time a Berkeley facility’s name has been eliminated due to its namesake’s character or actions. ...
John Henry Boalt was instrumental in legitimizing anti-Chinese racism and in catalyzing support for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the nation’s first immigration ban on a specific group of people solely on the basis of race or nationality. Yet, until 2017, his views weren’t well known on campus.
“His principal public legacy is … one of racism and bigotry … John Boalt’s positive contributions to the university do not appear to outweigh this legacy of harm,” concluded a 2018 report by a law school committee tasked by Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky to assess, in part, whether the name should be removed from use.
I am saddened to see my great university following the herd of other colleges that are selectively editing American history. Answering for the moments of the past is not to remove people and events from our collective memory, but to remember them and learn from them. Shall we next re-sculpt Mount Rushmore because Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and because Roosevelt liked war, or remove the Washington and Jefferson monuments from the National Mall? Closer to home, shall we end the Jefferson lectures at Berkeley for the same reasons? Shall we edit out the names of chancellors and university leaders who worked on the nuclear bomb because the politically sensitive on campuses today reject that WWII ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Institutions dedicated to the search for truth should not find it in their mission to add and delete from that truth for reasons of current political correctness. Instead, Berkeley should have used Boalt’s name as the starting point for debate and discussion of his attitude toward the Chinese, the late 19th-century treatment of immigrants, and questions of race, both then and today. It is only by remembering and discussing these events, rather than pretending that they never happened, that we will make sure they don’t happen again.