If the majority of parents, teachers, and students of Jefferson Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., has its way, the school will soon shed its name and its association with the nation's third president, who they say is not worthy of being honored because of the hundreds of slaves he owned at his Monticello plantation.
The city's board of education is expected to vote today on a proposal to change the school's name to Sequoia Elementary.
But even with that name, the school district cannot quite dodge the slavery connotations. Some community members have pointed out that under Chief Sequoia's leadership in the early 19th century, the Cherokee nation owned more than 1,500 black slaves.
A spokesman for the Berkeley Unified School District, Mark Coplan, acknowledged that Chief Sequoia "presumably owned slaves and was rather barbaric," but he emphasized that the proposed new name would honor the sequoia tree, not the Cherokee leader.
A petition to shed the name Jefferson from the school's title prompted an April vote in which parents, teachers, and students from kindergarten through fifth grade cast ballots to choose a new name. According to Mr. Coplan, Sequoia narrowly beat out the second-place candidate, Ohlone, which would have honored a California tribe. Other names rejected in the April vote would have paid tribute to the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, black diplomat Ralph Bunche, Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez, and Berkeley's late rent-board commissioner, Florence McDonald.
In a second vote last month, the school community voted 239-177 to change the school's name to Sequoia, with students overwhelmingly supporting the proposal, while parents' votes were almost evenly split.
The issue now goes to the Berkeley school board.
At a June 8 meeting, two of the board's five members said they are leaning in favor of the name change, while two members expressed opposition to the plan.
The board's president, Nancy Riddle, said at the meeting that she is planning to seek legal advice before casting her vote. Ms. Riddle, who is also the chief financial officer of Monster Cable, lives just yards away from Jefferson Elementary, and board protocol would require her to recuse herself from a vote that could affect her home's property value.
Ms. Riddle said yesterday that the California Fair Political Practices Commission had given her clearance to participate in tonight's decision. But she said that she did not yet know how she would cast her ballot, which appears to be the crucial swing vote on the issue.
In a telephone interview with The New York Sun, Ms. Riddle said she had heard "compelling" arguments from community members in favor of the name change. "I have had parents tell me that [the school's current name] makes them feel unwelcome," Ms. Riddle said. "More parent participation is a proven component of children's educational achievement."
But Michael Larrick, a self-employed general contractor and a Berkeley parent, said he thought the argument in favor of the name change was "absurd." He questioned the notion of letting elementary school students cast ballots in the April and May elections." These kids are five years old. They don't have historical context to make any decisions changing the name," Mr. Larrick said.
Richard Gentry, a stay-at-home father with two children at Jefferson Elementary, also said he opposed the name change. "If you're going to have public symbols, they should mean something. And to vote for a public symbol because it doesn't offend somebody offends me," Mr. Gentry said. He added that the debate has diverted parents and school administrators from more pressing concerns, such as dealing with the district's budget problems.
Three Berkeley schools have changed their names in the last half century, according to Mr. Coplan. A middle school named after President Garfield rechristened itself in 1968 to honor the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. And in the 1970s, Lincoln Elementary was renamed in memory of Malcolm X, although Mr. Coplan said the name change did not reflect any ill will toward the 16th president.
Most recently, after a 1989 earthquake that battered Columbus Elementary School, the district dropped the name of the Italian explorer from the school's title. "There was no real question about that, because in Berkeley, we don't even celebrate Columbus Day," Mr. Coplan said. Instead, the second Monday in October is reserved for Indigenous People's Day on the Berkeley city calendar.
"The real discussion that came up at the time was whether [the new name] would be Rosa Parks or Cesar Chavez," Mr. Coplan said, adding that after a "long debate," the school community chose to honor the black Alabama seamstress instead of Mr. Chavez.
In an ironic twist, Mr. Larrick noted that the City of Berkeley is named after George Berkeley, an Irish-born philosopher and Anglican bishop who brought several slaves to his Rhode Island plantation in the late 1720s. "In a way, it's worse than Jefferson, because the bishop was an apologist for slavery," Mr. Larrick said.