On the rebranding of hurtful names

I know a little about this debate. In 2007 I successfully organized a grassroots campaign to rename a Sacramento middle school and county park. Charles Goethe was a rich American eugenicist who helped fund the involuntary sterilization of over 20,000 black women throughout CA in the 1920s. A group of school administrators in low-income inner-city Goethe Middle School, which served a majority black local population, were outraged when they learned of the namesake’s history. We got the school’s name changed to Rosa Parks, and later changed Goethe County Park to River Bend Park. goethe_photo2

These efforts were popular and received very little push back. But the opposing forces employed a familiar argument: the slippery slope. Where does the madness stop? Are Washington and Jefferson next? It’s a ridiculous argument on every level. In point of fact, our effort stopped with Goethe. There was zero appetite among any of the activists to target larger historical figures. Anyway, I’m proud of the ridicule I personally received from right-wing radio on account of this worthy campaign to make public spaces less oppressive and hurtful for significant portions of local citizens. Listen to the idiotic rant of the talk show host, as he calls me a “thin-skinned candy ass” by name, and then blithely makes the argument that Goethe was only caught up in something that was “popular” during his day, so, bankrolling a eugenics experiment not his fault? (I think he was poorly trying to equate Goethe with Washington, et al, who owned slaves when it was “socially acceptable” to do so. That comparison is strained, of course, as Washington and Jefferson, et al, are known historically for so much more than tossing big sums of money around Sacramento and doing experiments on vulnerable women.) Also, I’ll link to a Wall Street Journal article that was written about our effort. Tamara Keith, who’s now big on national NPR, also did a ten minute story on this campaign when she worked at KQED. So, it got plenty of coverage. This whole debate is certainly nothing new.

WSJ article: “The point is to close these hurtful chapters in this country’s past” said Austin Aslan, a community organizer who campaigned against the Goethe name. “It’s part of the great reconciliation this nation is going through.”

(PS. The efforts to wipe away Goethe’s name from Sacramento are some of my proudest campaigns back when I was a professional community organizer. Of course, these efforts were only successful b/c of the passionate activism of several dozens of local community leaders and churches.)




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