SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, a San Francisco preschool in an underserved, predominantly black neighborhood bore the name of Peter Burnett, California’s first elected civilian governor.
The problem is, Burnett was a staunch racist who supported the exclusion of blacks from the state, the suspension of Chinese immigration and the extermination of Native Americans.
Last year, while reading a book about the history of race relations in California, local NAACP chapter president Rev. Amos Brown said he uncovered “the chilling details” of Burnett’s tenure from 1849 to 1851.
“I called the superintendent and I said, `We need to change the name of that school,’” he said of the Burnett Child Development Center in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. “There was a great team effort in the community after I sounded the alarm.”
That effort culminated last month in the Board of Education’s unanimous vote to rename the school the Leola M. Havard Early Education School after the city’s first female African-American principal. On Thursday, local education officials, families and community activists gathered at the Oakdale Avenue site for a dedication ceremony honoring the 91-year-old Havard, who still lives in San Francisco.
“Through the change of this name, we’re getting away from a vestige of our dark past,” Brown said.
Burnett first entered politics in the 1840s in the provisional legislature in Oregon, where he proposed that all free blacks be forced to leave the state or face arrest and floggings every six months until they did.
He moved to California in 1848 in the early days of the Gold Rush and was elected governor the following year. He pushed for a similar exclusion policy there, but the Legislature rejected his efforts.
Burnett abruptly resigned from office after state lawmakers roundly criticized his first annual address, according to the California State Library’s online account of his governorship.
Several community members suggested renaming the Burnett Child Development Center after First Lady Michelle Obama, Brown said. But he said he immediately thought of Havard, calling her “a symbol of struggle and achievement” in San Francisco.
Havard began her 30-year career in the San Francisco Unified School District in 1949. She served as a teacher and assistant principal at several local elementary schools and finally as head of John Muir Elementary School before retiring in 1979.
The school board passed a resolution April 12 honoring Havard for being an educational leader who dedicated her life to all students, regardless of their cultural heritage, economic background or educational capabilities.
In addition to recognizing Havard’s contributions to the city, the board wanted to send a message to the school’s young children, said board member Kim-Shree Maufas. She said she was shocked to read about Burnett’s positions.
“We are really correcting an injustice that was going unnoticed,” she said of the name change. “We want (students) to know and be proud of who their school is named after.”
The school was built in 1911 and officials believe it has carried Burnett’s name since the beginning, said school district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson.
The former governor’s name also graces Burnett Avenue in San Francisco’s Twin Peaks neighborhood and several other schools around the state
One of those schools, Burnett Middle School in San Jose, underwent its own name modification last year when a group of students successfully lobbied the local school board to drop the first name Peter and leave only Burnett.
Principal Lisa Aguerria Lewis said she researched Burnett’s history about nine years ago before coming to the school, located 50 miles south of San Francisco. But she said she wanted any efforts to distance the school from the former governor’s controversial stances to be led by the students.
“It wasn’t a plight I wanted to take on my own,” she said, adding that no one spoke out against the change.