Removing the Hate from Haight
Students, parents, and staff are scheduled to vote this month for a new name for Henry Haight Elementary School.
Rochelle Lokting is a Haight teacher and parent.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
In October, the kids at Henry Haight Elementary School voted in their first primary election. Using the results, on Election Day, Nov. 6, they’ll vote again, along with parents and staff. On the ballot: a new name for their elementary school.
The nearly yearlong renaming effort, led by a local journalist/historian, parents, alumni, and teachers, has focused on engaging students in the electoral system and teaching the community about Alameda history — a history that involves Henry Huntly Haight, the 10th governor of California, the school’s namesake, and a man whose views are now considered stridently racist.
“The philosophy that Haight espoused is not the philosophy of the school now,” said Steve Mack, father of a Haight Elementary School fourth-grader and a member of the renaming committee. “Students will be faced with this information that Haight didn’t want a diverse state.”
Haight’s 1867 inaugural address was racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic. He ran on a platform that opposed Civil War Reconstruction, suffrage for women and people of color, and Asian immigration. From a stage in Sacramento, Haight declared:
“These inferior races have their civil rights, as all good men desire they should have. They can sue and defend in the courts; acquire and possess property; they have entire freedom of person, and can pursue any lawful occupation for a livelihood; but they will never, with the consent of the people of this state, either vote or hold office.”
As governor, he refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which legally expanded voting rights to men of color.
After his single term, Haight returned to Alameda, where he served on the Alameda Board of Trustees and the UC Board of Regents.
Henry Haight Elementary School itself is entirely uncontroversial. The stucco building sits on tree-lined Santa Clara Avenue surrounded by pretty homes; its peach and orange exterior suggests sunny, positive learning takes place inside. The school’s dedication to inclusiveness is overt: There’s a rainbow sign out front that assures, “Everyone Belongs Here.” The student body is diverse; more than 70 percent of the kids are Asian, Latino, and African American. Among the families, at least 17 languages are spoken.
The original Haight Elementary School was established 135 years ago, shortly after Haight left Sacramento. Since then, the name has moved to new buildings, and generations have attended the school without giving it much thought. Like many long-dead figures, Haight was enveloped in a historic amnesia, recognizable as a street or a school name but not considered as an actual person. The fact that “Haight” sounds exactly like “Hate,” especially indistinguishable for children who can’t yet read, used to be only mildly uncomfortable. Now it’s an apt metaphor.
Alameda resident Rasheed Shabazz also didn’t know about Henry H. Haight when he started digging into local landmarks, researching their history, and searching for the type of historical ghosts — namely the racist and misogynist ghosts — that hide in plain sight around cities. He wanted to exhume and discuss them.
For Shabazz, an Alameda native, historian, and journalist (disclosure: Shabazz is a freelance writer for the East Bay Express, which is owned by the same company that owns Alameda Magazine), this type of historic research has personal relevance. He grew up in the West End and played park league sports — that was his first inkling that segregation wasn’t only a Southern issue, like he was taught in school. “I played ball with other black kids from West End,” Shabazz said. “And we’d go play in other areas … and you know, they were different.”
As an adult, this idea that there’s an invisible history, one that no one talks about but that explains why, for example, all the black kids live in the West End, became the focus of his studies. Which is how he stumbled on Gov. Haight and read his speeches.
On Dec. 5, 2017, 150 years to the day after Haight’s racist inaugural address, Shabazz wrote to the Haight Elementary PTA, Haight school administration, and the Alameda school board. In his letter, he informed them about Haight’s views and suggested they change the name of the school. His argument resonated with many parents and alumni, who lead the action from there.
“Any history that denigrates me as a person when I have the full burden as a citizen … I don’t want to be around,” said Sandi Thomas, Haight Elementary alumnus and descendant of one of the first black families in Alameda. “Whose history is it?”
In the ’60s, Thomas was one of the only black kids in her classes at Haight Elementary — the same school her mother attended before her. She remembers playing tetherball and four square, taking class trips to the San Francisco Zoo, and bringing handmade butter to the old Wonder Bread factory. She doesn’t remember learning about Haight, but as a kid, she still didn’t like the name.
“I never liked saying Haight School because it sounds like ‘I hate school,’ ” Thomas said. “And I loved school.”
Rochelle Lokting, a parent of a Haight Elementary second-grader and member of the renaming committee, said she has talked to her son about Haight and has been careful to not impose her opinions. “It’s not a political issue at all,” said Lokting, who is also a K-12 teacher of 16 years. “We’re talking about human rights, dignity, and the democratic process.”
She said he understands that Haight didn’t want people without Caucasian backgrounds to vote, and he thinks that is unfair. “This is so relevant to students’ lives,” she said. As a teacher, she sees the renaming ultimately as a way to engage the students.
Of course, not everyone is excited about the name change. According to the parents and alumni doing outreach, the most common complaint is that removing the name of the school, one that has existed for more than a century, is a form of historic erasure. The answer to that argument — that Haight has a portrait in the Alameda Museum, which is a much better context for him to be remembered — isn’t fully satisfying for them.
But no one who opposes the name change, including some teachers at Haight Elementary, felt comfortable being interviewed for this article.
At the Rename Haight outreach booth at the Downtown Alameda Art & Wine Faire this summer, discussions were open and civil. The renaming committee meetings are open to the public, and space is made to listen to everyone.
“I’m glad that something like this is happening in Alameda,” said Sachi Yoshii, an Alameda native and who does public outreach for the renaming committee. “It’s something that sounds almost simple and easy to do, but in reality, people feel differently about the renaming process, and they are in the minority. This process gives space for those people.”
The committee members spent a long time coming up with a set of criteria for the new name. It can be either a place or a person, but must represent diversity, inclusivity, education, and have a connection to Alameda. The general public was encouraged to suggest names online up to the student primary election, and with those suggestions as references, the committee created the list of candidates for students to vote for in the primary.
By the time the magazine went to press, Haight Elementary students had not yet voted in their primary election to determine which names would be among the finalists for the school. But the list of qualified candidate names included Rosa Parks Elementary, Harriet Tubman Elementary, Cesar Chavez Elementary, and Harvey Milk Elementary. Numerous racist names were also submitted but disqualified.
After the general election, the committee will bring the winning name to the Alameda school board for approval.
The fact that the students will be so closely included in the renaming process is satisfying for the people who have been working hard to guide this process.
“These are the children that Haight didn’t want to vote,” Shabazz said. “And now they’re voting to change the name of their school.”