Henry H. Haight, UC's 150th anniversary and the erasure of history in public spaces

Renaming Election: Love or Haight

2018 marked the 150th anniversary of the University of California. Henry Huntly Haight, the governor who signed the 1868 Organic Act which created the university, was mentioned a few times but his legacy has been largely erased from public memory.  

Like many others, I knew little about Gov. Haight just over a year ago. In my hometown of Alameda, Haight Elementary School is named after the Gov. Haight, who moved to the town during his governorship and maintained an estate there until his death in 1878.

Inspired by the events of Charlottesville in summer 2017, I became interested in local monuments to white supremacy here in the Bay Area. I knew Alameda had parks and streets honoring slave owners, but I had no idea that who Haight was.

Reconstruction “disfranchises enough white men to give the political control to a mass of negroes just emancipated and almost as ignorant of political duties as the beasts of the field.”

– Governor Henry Huntly Haight (Dec. 5, 1867)

Haight mobilized fear and animosity among white males to be elected California’s 10th governor. Most of his Dec. 5, 1867, inauguration speech focused on opposition to the Reconstruction policies of Congress. He declared African and Asians as “inferior races” and opposed their voting rights and immigration. Reconstruction, according to Gov. Haight, attacked the civil liberties of white people in the South and “disfranchises [sic] enough white men to give the political control to a mass of negroes just emancipated and almost as ignorant of political duties as the beasts of the field.”

Once in office, Gov. Haight also opposed the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. He never transmitted the 14th Amendment to the state legislature. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship and equal protection to formerly enslaved Africans. When Congress adopted the 15th Amendment in 1869, granting voting rights to all men over the age of 21, Haight encouraged the California State Legislature to oppose ratifying the amendment. “If this amendment is adopted, the most degraded Digger Indian within our borders becomes at once an elector, and so far, a ruler. His vote would count for as much as that of the most intelligent white man in the State,” Haight warned. California did not adopt the 14th and 15th Amendments until 1959 and 1962.

In the same way the legacy of Henry H. Haight had been erased in Alameda, the governor was barely mentioned in the 150th anniversary of the university.

Despite his bigoted, racist, and xenophobic worldview, some people in Alameda oppose renaming Haight Elementary School. The opposition to renaming Haight mirrors many of the arguments made to maintain Confederate monuments elsewhere in this country. Some people have an emotional attachment to the name, some suggest society should not hide symbols of white supremacy but instead display them prominently so that society learns from the past, and others claim that schools should use taxpayer resources differently. As I’ve shared elsewhere: changing the name does not negate the positive memories alums and former staff may have of the school; for nearly 135 years the name was hidden in plain sight and people did not learn about Haight, and taxpayer money should not be used to honor racists — especially at a school with the demographics of the people Gov. Haight targeted.

Since this information became more publicly available, parents and students mobilized to petition to rename the school. Members of the Haight Renaming Committee engaged in public education efforts, solicited name suggestions from the community and hosted two elections to identify a potential new name and enable the community to decide whether to keep Haight or choose Love.

Although it was my at a family reunion in 2015 in New Orleans when I realized the scale and impact of public spaces with monuments to the confederacy, it was my time at Cal that inspired me to take action. A few years ago, the Cal Black Student Union called for the renaming of Barrows Hall, named after David Prescott Barrows. His role in colonizing the Philippines is more widely known — although his attitudes towards Africans and his violent, anti-union actions in Oakland are not.

Those efforts spawned a review of building names on campus and the renaming of LeConte Elementary School in Berkeley to Sylvia Mendez Elementary School.

Renaming Haight to “Love” is certainly symbolic, a great symbol, but our communities also need affirmative actions to eliminate the opportunity gap in Alameda. We can rename a school “Love” but it will be a meaningless action of all our children are not treated with love.

In the same way the legacy of Haight had been erased in Alameda, the governor was barely mentioned in the 150th anniversary of the university. Perhaps it is because — despite what some Gov. Haight apologists wish — the governor had little to do with the formation of the university. According to William Warren Ferrier, author of Origins and Development of the University of California. Haight signed a piece of paper.

The research skills I cultivated at Cal have enabled me to not only unearth this forgotten legacy of Gov. Haight, but make it accessible to others. The website for the Coalition to Rename Haight has lesson plans, primary sources, and articles documenting the process, that can be used as this public school’s story evolves.

Finally, one mystery still remains. According to one document at the Bancroft Library, the family donated a bust of Haight to the university in the early 1900s. I wonder where it is now. Hopefully in a museum where it can be viewed, critically, in context.

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