How small is this town?
Let’s put it this way: When you ask the City Hall receptionist to see the mayor, she directs you to FloBeds, two blocks away.
There, in an office at the back of a mattress store festooned with his wife’s colorful quilts, Dave Turner sits at his paper-strewn desk, prepping for the afternoon’s joint meeting of the Fort Bragg City Council and the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors.
He is not surprised to see me.
On July 8, Turner received a letter from state Sen. Steve Glazer, strongly urging the citizens of Fort Bragg to consider renaming their city.
Glazer had introduced a bill seeking to erase the names of Confederate leaders from all public places. Though the measure was mainly directed at schools, parks and roadways, he hoped Fort Bragg would get with the program.
Braxton Bragg, as it happens, was a Confederate general and slave owner.
“My first reaction was, I am not even going to write the guy back,” said Turner, a Fort Bragg native.
Then, a week later, the California Legislative Black Caucus made the same request in more urgent tones. “Now is the time to embrace a new vision for your city and not be shackled by its shameful namesake,” the legislators wrote.
Turner was taken aback.
“We’re not going to change our name,” he told me. “There is no reason to. Fort Bragg has nothing to do with the Confederacy. This is a small town. We don’t have race issues here.”
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether any city in California that was created by displacing its Native American population can truly be said to be free of race issues, the mayor has a point.
Fort Bragg was established as a military outpost on an Indian reservation in 1857. It was named by a soldier who had served under Bragg during the Mexican-American War.
“At the point it was named for him,” said town historian Sylvia Bartley, “Bragg was considered an American military hero.”
Like much of coastal Mendocino County, Fort Bragg is isolated, accessible by a curvy road that undulates through a redwood forest.
For tourists, the payoff is usually found a bit south of Fort Bragg, in the quaint town of Mendocino, where wooden houses and stores perch above a spectacular rocky shoreline that rivals Maine’s picturesque coast.
Fort Bragg is Mendocino’s blue-collar cousin; a former mill town with fast-food joints and motels along its main drag. It is probably best known for its “sea glass” beaches — three onetime city dumps where shards of glass have been tumbled by the ocean into smooth, pebble-like gems. With only 7,250 residents, it is majority white, with a sizable Latino population and only a handful of blacks.
It is a town in flux.
For more than a century, the citizens of Fort Bragg were separated from their own coastline by a looming lumber mill that spanned the length of the town on the west side of Highway 1. The mill dwindled for decades and finally closed in 2002, a victim of its own unsustainable practices.
Today, the 415-acre site is prime coastal real estate. Most of it is owned by the mill’s corporate parent, Koch Industries. “They would like to sell it all for a lot of money,” Bartley said. “We can’t predict what will happen.”
The city owns a chunk of that land — a pedestrian trail along the bluff’s edge and some acreage that is the future home of the Noyo Center for Marine Science.
On Monday, in an old gymnasium next to City Hall, Noyo Center Executive Director Sheila Semans helped volunteers reconstruct two sea lion skeletons for display. She frowned when I asked her about the name change request.
“That’s a lose-lose, isn’t it?” she said. “We don’t want to be known as the town that doesn’t want to change its Confederate name, but the town doesn’t have a Confederate history. People who grew up here are very loyal to Fort Bragg. It’s a small town with a lot of pride.”
“I kind of empathize with them,” said Los Angeles Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Many of them probably didn’t know the history of Braxton Bragg. I had to do some research myself before I signed the letter.”
Bragg’s status before he fought for the Confederacy is irrelevant, Jones-Sawyer said. “There are not a lot of towns named after Benedict Arnold, who was a Revolutionary War hero. It’s about the whole concept of oppressing a people. I think the town should be very concerned about it.”
If Fort Bragg wants suggestions for a new name, he said, “I have a list of some great African American generals.”
But California is rife with towns named for 19th century men who slaughtered and enslaved native populations. John Sutter. Mariano Vallejo. And let’s not even get into what the Franciscan missionaries did.
Confronting history, though, is better than erasing it.
“I don’t think it’s a waste of time for the Black Caucus to be concerned with trying to correct … the effect that the Confederacy had on race relations in this country,” said Fort Bragg City Councilman Doug Hammerstrom. Still, he doesn’t see the point of renaming a town named after a man most people have never heard of.
“There is no annual celebration of the birth of Braxton Bragg or anything like that,” he said. Bragg never even set foot in the town.
Not everyone is so philosophical. Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman was so irritated that he fired off his own angry response to the Black Caucus, chastising legislators and inviting them to visit.
“Your assumption that we correlate the name ‘Bragg’ with slavery is wrong, miscalculated and mean spirited,” he wrote. “I have never witnessed a single act of racism in this coastal town.”
I bumped into Allman on Monday. “Are there people in Sacramento who have nothing better to do than to pretend there is a problem here and try to fix this problem that isn’t really a problem?” he asked.
Over the years, there have been suggestions that Fort Bragg change its name. “So many people think we’re in North Carolina,” said Nancy Tone, who owns a T-shirt shop on Main Street. “Or they say, ‘It’s not a fort.’”
There are good reasons for removing Confederate flags from our public squares, and for rechristening schools named after notorious Confederates like Robert E. Lee.
But try as I might, I can’t see how changing tiny Fort Bragg’s name would make our world a better place, not even just a little.