Beyond Confederacy: California confronts its legacy of slavery and genocide
Back when Assemblywoman Monique Limón served on the school board in Santa Barbara, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians donated an encyclopedia-style dictionary to the local schools about their language and culture.
Limón, born and raised in Santa Barbara, was mesmerized when she turned the pages, learning so much about her community she never knew. Such information may be lacking in public schools, where critics say lessons often don’t include accurate information about the origins and history of native tribes. Limón thinks that should change.
The Democratic legislator is shepherding AB 738, which would require a model curriculum in Native American studies, written with the input of Native Americans, that schools could use as a guide for grades 9 through 12. It’s part of a larger effort to educate California’s students a most “holistic representation of history.”
Her bill has advanced through the Legislature at a time when much as the United States is grappling with how it should remember its history. The presence and possible removal of Confederate statues and memorials in the South has ignited fiery debate in other states. In California, politicians have denounced recent white supremacist rallies Virginia and elsewhere, condemning them as gatherings of racism and hate.
“We’ve had a really tough month in our country,” Limón said. “This tough month with race relations gives us the opportunity to say ‘We have to have these conversations. We have to be inclusive of history.’ ”
California has its own Civil War history, but it also has a painful colonization history—one academics believe ought to be told more in schools. It’s a tale of a state founded by white colonists who wiped out much of the Native American population by bringing disease, forcing relocation, imposing starvation, and carrying out what its more severe critics describe as a forgotten, state-sanctioned genocide of a people.
And it’s one that many Californians haven’t heard—at least not the details or the extent of the state’s role as the “primary architect of annihilation,” says Benjamin Madley, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.”
“It’s a largely forgotten history that people are now being forced to come to grips with,” Madley said.
Last year California school officials adopted a new statewide history framework for K-12 schools that advocates describe as a more holistic approach. The framework, which is written as guideline for how teachers should teach, no longer suggests fourth-grade students studying California history build a Spanish mission, a project that had been the rite of passage for every fourth grader for years when learning about the settlement of California by missionaries. Rather, the guideline specifies that students should think about how life was like for native Californians, look to maps to figure out why the houses Indians built varied so much and why natural resources were so critical to their way of life.
“We tried to emphasize the importance of multiple perspectives,” says Nancy McTygue, a former high school history teacher and executive director of the California History-Social Science Project, which crafted the new framework.
California is populated with symbols of its founding fathers who, as it turns out, had a big hand in what Madley, the UCLA historian, characterizes as extermination campaigns that caused the Native American population to drop from 150,000 to 30,000. Among the examples:
- John C Frémont, one of California’s first U.S. senators, is celebrated with the naming of a Bay Area city, a lake in the Sierra Nevada, and a street in San Francisco. Before he became a senator, historians say, he led massacres of peaceful Indian villages. His lieutenant Christopher “Kit” Carson, who rounded up Indians and destroyed their villages, has a town named after him in Amador County.
- California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, declared in his 1851 state of the state address to the Legislature: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.” Elementary schools in Sacramento and Hawthorne bear his name.
- A street in Sacramento is named after U.S. Sen. John Weller, whom Madley says proclaimed that Native Americans “will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man. The interest of the white man demands their extinction.”
- Statues of Spanish missionary Junípero Serra, who created a church mission system in California, stand tall in plazas, parks and in front of missions across California. A 26-foot statue of Serra towers over Interstate 280 at a rest stop kneeling and pointing West. Yet stories of his brutal treatment of indigenous people came to the forefront in 2015 when Pope Francis canonized him.
Although California was never part of the Confederacy, a few of its prominent figures resettled West, making the state home to a handful of remaining Confederate tributes.
- The city of Ft. Bragg in Mendocino County was named after Braxton Bragg, a general in the Confederate Army.
- Confederate Corners in Monterey County was named by Southern families who settled there after the Civil War.
- Joseph and John LeConte, who played key roles in manufacturing munitions for the Confederate Army, are memorialized on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. John LeConte was the first UC Berkeley president, and Joseph LeConte was a geologist and natural historian.
- Johnston Street in Los Angeles is named after Albert Sidney Johnston, who lived in the neighborhood when he was a commanding general of the Confederate Army.
In recent years, Californians have taken steps to remove the few references to Confederates that once dotted the state. The Legislature in 2014 banned the sale and display of the Confederate flag by the state of California. A year later, it sent legislation to Gov. Jerry Brown that would have called for the renaming of schools, buildings, parks, roadways or other state or local property that bore a Confederate name. Brown, however, vetoed that measure, saying it ought to be up to local officials.
Already school boards in San Diego and Long Beach replaced Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name on elementary schools. In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, The Hollywood Forever Cemetery last month removed a monument that commemorated Confederate veterans, and the city of San Diego removed a plaque that honored Confederate President Jefferson Davis at Horton Park Plaza.
And the state Senate last week unanimously passed a resolution urging the federal government to strip Confederate names from any federal parks, buildings and roadways. Sections of U.S. 99 in California are labeled Jefferson Davis Highway.
Although the vote was unanimous, the debate prompted a number of senators to question whether politicians were trying to “whitewash” or erase history.
“I’m very concerned about the potential whitewashing of our history, both the dark parts of our history and the bright parts of our history,” state Sen. Jeff Stone, R- Temecula, argued during the floor debate. “This is a slippery slope we’re going down.”
That concern also rests on the minds of those critical of California’s colonists who wonder who’s next. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington for their slave-owning past? Martin Luther King for his alleged womanizing?
“Are we going to go and dig up all the dirt on everyone?,” asks John Briscoe, a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and an adjunct professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who penned an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle this summer questioning the names behind two of California’s oldest universities.
“This doesn’t end,” he added.
In his op-ed, Briscoe points out that Serranus Hastings founded California’s oldest law school, Hastings College of Law, while Leland Stanford, a former California governor, established one of the country’s most prestigious universities in his son’s memory. Both promoted Indian hunting expeditions and profited off the theft of Indian land. But rather than rebrand the colleges, Briscoe is advocating for a serious dialogue.
The move to expunge historical markers in California hasn’t stopped at the Confederacy. Some local school board and city officials have already taken steps to ensure California’s colonial past isn’t revered.
In 2004, the city of Eureka transferred 60 acres of city-owned land on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay to the Wiyot Tribe, where an estimated 200 sleeping men, women and children were massacred. A decade later, the Long Beach Unified School District replaced Peter Burnett’s name on an elementary school with that of Bobbie Smith, the board’s first African American member. The San Francisco Board of Education also renamed a child development center after the community questioned Burnett’s political discrimination.
And in a 2016 proclamation, Gov. Jerry Brown did what Madley, the UCLA historian, says no other governor has done: call out the genocide of Native Americans, stating that “The newborn State of California actually paid for the killing of Native peoples and tolerated or encouraged policies of warfare, slavery and relocation that left no tribe intact.”
To Madley, the movement to tear down monuments to those who committed atrocities is well founded. Those items, he argues, belong in a museum and not out on public display to be revered.
“The Germans have taken down almost all of the Nazi street names, statues, things that physically celebrated Nazis,” he said. “That has not stopped Germans from remembering the Holocaust.”