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UC Berkeley to remove names of LeConte and Barrows halls due to ‘controversial legacies’

A worker lifts up a plank of oak to cover the name of an academic hall above its doors
A member of a UC Berkeley work crew covers up the words “LeConte Hall” with a plank of oak to match the massive wooden doors on the academic building that has been known for nearly 100 years as Old LeConte Hall.
(Irene Yi / UC Berkeley)

Two halls at UC Berkeley will have their names removed Wednesday in response to growing awareness of their namesakes’ controversial legacies, campus officials said.

For now, Barrows Hall will be referred to simply as the Social Sciences Building, while the two buildings that make up LeConte Hall will be known as Physics North and Physics South, according to a news release from the university. Their original namesakes were early, prominent members of the university faculty who also promoted racist rhetoric and colonialist ideas.

A process for selecting new, permanent names is in the works, officials said. They will continue to go by their “default” names until they receive new ones.

“The decisions reflect a new urgency being felt by U.S. civic and higher education leaders to remove building names and monuments that memorialize individuals who expressed racist and dehumanizing views,” the university said.

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Berkeley is the oldest campus in the University of California system and is home to several classical Beaux-Arts buildings and historic landmarks.

The move to “dename” the halls capped a formal review process that found the original names caused pain in the campus community and clashed with the school’s current mission and values, the university said. Chancellor Carol Christ and UC President Michael V. Drake both consented to the change.

The review process was spurred by two proposals submitted to the chancellor’s Building Name Review Committee in July by members of the UC community. The 12-member committee of students, faculty and staff members unanimously approved dropping the names.

“Our buildings should not be another reminder that we are and have long been despised,” said doctoral student Caleb E. Dawson, co-president of the Black Graduate Student Assn. “They should signal otherwise, and those signals should correspond with institutional norms, policies and practices that make us feel otherwise in our everyday lives.”

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John and Joseph LeConte — the namesakes for the hall that houses the school’s physics department — were brothers from a slaveholding family who came to Berkeley in 1869, the school said.

John was a professor of physics and chemistry who served as the university’s first acting president from 1869 to 1870 and again for five years beginning in 1875. Joseph was a professor of natural science and geology and served as president of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and of the Sierra Club, which he established with John Muir.

Both had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and were heirs to their family’s Georgia plantation, which had more than 200 enslaved people. Joseph, in particular, wrote several works “aimed at justifying, through pseudo-scientific language, the inferiority of African Americans,” the university said.

Of the 634 responses solicited by the committee about the proposal to rename LeConte Hall, 87% approved, according to the school.

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“Both men made important academic contributions, but this does not undo or offset the harm done by their racism,” said UC Berkeley physics professor Frances Hellman, dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Science.

Hellman said the brothers disgraced science by allowing dangerous ideologies to become enmeshed with their work.

“This illustrates one of the many ways in which diversity of the scientific community is essential to good science,” she said, “and how much the quality of science is diminished without it.”

The committee’s letter said the faculty was catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter movement and acted in support of calls to action from student organizations on campus.

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They were similarly decisive about David Prescott Barrows, whose hall houses departments such as sociology and ethnic studies.

Barrows served as UC president from 1919 to 1923 and was a faculty member for more than 30 years. But, the unnaming proposal said, his “words and actions were anti-Black, anti-Filipinx, anti-Indigenous, xenophobic and Anglocentric.”

“Unnamings are just the tip of the issue,” said Melissa Charles, UC Berkeley’s assistant director of African American student development who was a co-author of the proposal to unname Barrows Hall with her colleague, Takiyah Jackson. “They’re a step in the right direction — a necessary step, but a small step.”

The university’s Native American Advisory Committee also wrote in support of the unnaming, calling Barrows’ adherence to colonial ideology the foundation for “multiple violent policies and atrocities against Native Americans and Indigenous peoples around the globe.”

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Ninety-five percent of the 518 responses solicited about Barrows Hall approved of the change.

The unnaming follows similar decisions made by UC Berkeley and other universities this year. In January, Boalt Hall at the UC Berkeley School of Law was denamed because of attorney John Henry Boalt’s racist writings, while USC removed the name of Rufus von KleinSmid, a prominent eugenicist, from one of its buildings in June.

Similarly, Joseph LeConte’s name was removed from a lodge in Yosemite National Park in 2015 and from an elementary school in 2017.

Calling the decision to remove the names a “testament to student advocacy,” undergraduate student representative for the Building Name Review Committee Victoria Vera said it had been disheartening to see the university honor men who “never imagined me as a student.”

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“For me, it’s important to be in this battle to make sure that other folks like me that come afterward genuinely feel like this is their campus,” Vera said, “and like they belong here, no questions asked.”

But the Building Name Review Committee said the removal of the halls’ names should not equate to erasure. They recommended that the school ensure that the namesakes’ histories, including what led to their names’ removal, won’t be forgotten.

“Unnaming is not an erasure of history, but a profound acknowledgment of history, a reckoning of the present with the past,” said Raka Ray, dean of UC Berkeley’s Division of Social Sciences. Many of her division’s departments are housed in the former Barrows Hall.

“The unnaming of Barrows represents this acknowledgement and pledges commitment to a future that Berkeley stands for,” Ray said.

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The university is considering plaques or explanatory pages on school websites to explain how the buildings received — and later lost — their names.


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