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Law school and university namesakes stir up controversial pasts

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At UC Hastings, Faigman assembled a committee to consider the law school’s use of Hastings’ name. He’s also hired a historian for $10,000 to write about the man’s character and actions, as well as the period in which he lived. “At this point in time, we do not anticipate that the name of the school will be changed. However, I do not want to prejudge what the history tells us, or what the committee recommends,” Faigman says.

Robert Anderson, a University of Washington law professor who directs the school’s Native American Law Center, says he heard about Hastings’ history only recently. “I knew Indians had been murdered regularly throughout the country, but I hadn’t heard of civil efforts to hunt down California Indians,” says Anderson, a member of the Bois Fort Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. “It’s pretty shameful to have a school named after someone who carried out these activities. It’s kind of a slap in the face to all Indian people in California.”

Benjamin Madley, an associate history professor at UCLA, drew recent attention to Hastings’ actions in his book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, in which he writes about eight vigilantes charged with killing Native Americans in the Napa and Sonoma regions. Hastings, who served as the California Supreme Court’s first chief justice, released the accused men on bail. None of the cases was ever tried.

His research also found that Hastings organized a group known as the Eel River Rangers, which killed hundreds of California Indians.

“As I speculated in the book, I think he probably wanted to protect his investments in horses and cattle on his Eden Valley ranch,” Madley says.


Indeed, finding someone from that time period who had the means to fund a law school yet didn’t abuse people to make a fortune would be difficult, says Alfred Brophy, a University of Alabama law professor.

Brophy largely favors preserving institutions’ names so the past is not forgotten. “To some extent, schools are slow to make name changes. One reason I think they have had very difficult times with changing names is that they are controlled by people with a lot of money, who by and large are not very sympathetic,” Brophy says.

Others say that keeping names like Boalt and Hastings doesn’t set a good example for students.

“I believe that institutions have a responsibility to model good moral and ethical behavior for our students. A responsible institution of higher education cannot model standards of ethical behavior and basic human decency for students and alumni while condoning or turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by its namesake,” says John LaVelle, who directs the Indian Law Program at the University of New Mexico School of Law. A member of the Santee Sioux Nation, he’s also a Berkeley Law graduate and has no attachment to the Boalt name.

“I’m proud to have graduated from that law school. Now that I know the history of the name, I would not frame my pride around the name,” he says. “We can all have pride in a university without insisting on honoring a name that is associated with a very nefarious and racist past.”

Many public officials throughout the American West had opinions similar to those of Hastings and Boalt, and many white voters back then agreed with them, says John S.W. Park, an Asian-American studies professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“White supremacy was so ingrained in American history that if we were to remove everyone who was a white supremacist, we’d be busy,” says Park.

He notes that two streets in San Francisco—Van Ness and Geary—are named after former mayors known for their racist views.

“I certainly don’t mourn the removal of a Confederate statue or the renaming of Boalt Hall,” he says. “But I also wouldn’t mind just teaching the very young kids in San Francisco that [James] Van Ness and [John] Geary were total racists. It’ll help them see that intersection in a new way.”

This article was published in the February 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title "What’s in a Name? For some law schools and universities, namesakes stir up controversial pasts."

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