Why the Name of a California Governor is Being Removed From One San Jose School

At first blush, there’s nothing wrong with the name of San Jose’s Burnett Middle School. The school is named after California’s first elected governor, Peter Burnett, after all. What could be inappropriate about that?

A lot, as it turns out

Born into a slaveholding family in Tennessee in 1807, Burnett moved to Missouri (where he became a lawyer and defended Mormon leader Joseph Smith) before leading the first major wagon train to Oregon in 1843.

The following year, he wrote an amendment to Oregon's anti-slavery law, which excluded free blacks and allowed residents to keep slaves in the territory for three years before they would be freed and forced to leave.

"There was a lot of anti-black, a lot of racist sentiment in the West in those days, but he was an extreme position," [author Gregory Nokes] said. "He was pushing the envelope on that much more than other people were comfortable with." — KQED

That’s not all. After becoming governor, he urged the Legislature to pass an exclusion act against African Americans, said Nokes. And as a member of the California Supreme Court, he ruled that an escaped slave must return to the slave holder.

Burnett Middle School is now ready sever its ties with Burnett and the racist past his name embodies. Last month, the school agreed to change its name. Now the tough part will be choosing between the three finalists: Ohlone, San Jose, and Sofia Mendoza.

KQED reports that a handful of other educational centers have also removed Burnett from their designations in recent years. These include Burnett Elementary in Long Beach and the Burnett Child Development Center in San Francisco.


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