San Jose's Burnett Middle School is named after Peter Burnett, California's first governor. But his racist policies have led the school to change its name. (Ryan Levi/KQED)
You might think that the first U.S. governor of California would be a household name in the state he helped usher into being.
But not many people know much about Peter Burnett, and those who do aren't exactly singing his praises as a founding father.
"It felt like we had our own Confederate monument in the name of our school," said Cap Wilhelm-Safian, an eighth-grade teacher at Burnett Middle School in San Jose.
For the last year, Wilhelm-Safian has been leading the charge to rename the school because of Burnett's racist views.
"Peter Burnett had this fantasy that the West Coast — Oregon and Washington and what is now California — should be all white," said Gregory Nokes, who published a biography of Burnett in 2018.
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," Nokes said. "He was pushing the envelope on that much more than other people were comfortable with."
When gold was found in 1848, Burnett fled south to California, and in 1849 he was elected the state's first U.S. governor.
"In his very first address to the California Legislature, he said it was a matter of first priority that the Legislature enact an exclusion law against African Americans," Nokes said.
Nokes said that Burnett's racism, which also extended to the Chinese and Native Americans, made him an ineffective governor. He resigned after a little more than a year in office, a move that was celebrated in the California press.
He was appointed to the California Supreme Court, where he ordered an escaped slave from Mississippi to return to his master, even though he was in the free state of California. He eventually became a successful banker in San Francisco before dying in relative obscurity in 1875 and being mostly forgotten by history.
"I think he was kind of an embarrassment to California history, as he had been earlier in Oregon history, and it was easier just to kind of ignore him," Nokes said.
Changing a Name
For Wilhelm-Safian, Burnett's racist record doesn't match with the values and demographics of Burnett Middle School, which opened in 1931. The school is 80% Hispanic or Latino, and only 5% white. It's also a part of the International Baccalaureate program, which promotes an international education and open-mindedness.
With the encouragement of others, he began investigating the name change last fall, and then wrote a letter to the community describing Burnett's views and advocating for replacing the school's name.
"I didn't necessarily feel it was going to happen or not," he said. "I wanted to broach that idea to the community, whether this was a name we really wanted to continue having on the front of our school."
Wilhelm-Safian and other teachers worked Burnett's history and the name change into their lesson plans throughout the year. He said some wanted to keep the old name because they associated it with positive school memories or relatives who had gone to the school. But an overwhelming majority of students, staff and parents supported changing the name.
"We have a lot of different cultures in (our school), and it didn't make sense that we were named after someone who was really racist and tried to do a lot of bad things to people because they were different," said Ethan Narimatsujayne, a seventh-grader who was part of the name change committee that whittled down more than 500 nominations to seven finalists, which were opened to a school and community vote in May.
On June 13, the school board decided to rename the school Ohlone Middle School. The other top vote-getters were San Jose and Sofia Mendoza, an education reformer who organized student walkouts and worked with Cesar Chavez.
Not the Only Burnett in Town
Burnett Middle School is just the latest California school to try to disassociate from Peter Burnett and his racist views. Burnett Elementary in Long Beach and the Burnett Child Development Center in San Francisco's Bayview district both changed their names to honor black women in recent years.
San Francisco's Burnett Avenue in the Twin Peaks neighborhood is also named for the former governor. None of the residents KQED spoke with knew about their street's namesake, but once told, almost all of them said they didn't think Burnett belonged.
"They should probably definitely change that name," said Grace Goodman. "I've lived here for 27 years, and I had no idea. That's not cool."
David Jeter used to live in a transitional housing program for veterans on Burnett Avenue, which helped him get off the streets.
"I have memories here," he said, "and now when I think about what you just told me about naming of the street, I think it's time to change the name."
A spokesman for Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, whose district includes Burnett Avenue, said he would be open to renaming the street with community input.
This post has been updated.
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