UC Berkeley removes racist John Boalt’s name from law school

The denaming, prompted by the discovery of the 19th-century attorney’s racist writings, is the first time a Cal facility’s name has been eliminated due to its namesake’s character or actions.

UC Berkeley carpenter Joe Poppi removes lettering saying Boalt Hall from the side of the Berkeley Law building early on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. Photo: UC Berkeley/Roxanne Makasdjian

UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall is no more, its name removed from the law school today (Thursday, Jan. 30), campus officials announced. The denaming — the outcome of a nearly three-year process launched after a Berkeley lecturer discovered the racist writings of John Henry Boalt, a 19th century Oakland attorney — is the first time a Berkeley facility’s name has been eliminated due to its namesake’s character or actions.

In 1911, newly built Boalt Memorial Hall of Law became home to the university’s fledgling UC School of Jurisprudence. When the school moved into a new, larger facility in 1951, the UC Regents changed the school’s name to the UC Berkeley School of Law; the name Boalt Hall was given to the main classroom wing. But for decades, many at Berkeley referred to the entire building complex, and often to the law school itself, as Boalt Hall. And graduates of the law school, which also is known today as Berkeley Law, often were called “Boalties.”

Lettering on the exterior of the building is being removed this morning, in light of the announcement.

John Henry Boalt was instrumental in legitimizing anti-Chinese racism and in catalyzing support for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the nation’s first immigration ban on a specific group of people solely on the basis of race or nationality. Yet, until 2017, his views weren’t well known on campus.


“His principal public legacy is … one of racism and bigotry … John Boalt’s positive contributions to the university do not appear to outweigh this legacy of harm,” concluded a 2018 report by a law school committee tasked by Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky to assess, in part, whether the name should be removed from use. The group surveyed the Berkeley Law community, did extensive research and held a livestreamed town hall meeting.

Berkeley’s Building Name Review Committee, which reports to Chancellor Carol Christ, evaluated a formal proposal from Chemerinsky and collected additional campus feedback. Last October, its members voted in sync to recommend the name’s removal from the building. Their decision then required and received approval from Christ and UC President Janet Napolitano.

The committee’s principles call for the legacy of a campus building’s namesake to align with the university’s mission of fostering diversity and equal opportunity on campus.

“It’s incredibly important to confront racist symbols, like John Boalt’s name on a building, because these symbols act to reinforce the history of white supremacy in our institutions,” said Berkeley professor Paul Fine, co-chair of the Building Name Review Committee. “And, they can make students who learn about this history then feel excluded, like there is an endorsement of that racism by the institution itself.”

Erwin Chemerinsky
The law school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, launched an investigation into John Henry Boalt’s racism that then was furthered by Chancellor Carol Christ’s Building Name Review Committee. Photo: UC Berkeley/Irene Yi

In a letter to Napolitano asking her to approve the denaming, Christ wrote, “Removing the Boalt name from our campus — as well as acknowledging our historical ties to John Boalt — will help Berkeley recognize a troubled part of our history, while better supporting the diverse membership of today’s academic community.”


Along with its vote to strip the name, the 13-member committee’s faculty, staff and student representatives recommended that the law school “present the relevant history as part of a commitment to restorative justice.”

“This cannot be about erasing a difficult history or forgetting all of the years that the name Boalt was used and why it was changed,” echoed Chemerinsky, whose committee urged Berkeley Law to create “a visible public record … (an) exhibit, installation, plaque, sign or public art form that will enable viewers to acknowledge this history.”

A special Berkeley Law faculty and staff committee appointed by the dean is developing a plan.

Boalt and ‘The Chinese Question’

John Henry Boalt, who lived in the East Bay with his wife, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt, didn’t attend or teach at the law school, nor did he contribute to the life and mission of the University of California.

But after Boalt died in 1901, his widow put property she owned in San Francisco into a $100,000 trust for the university to construct, in his memory, Boalt Memorial Hall of Law. Then, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed most of that real estate, and because building costs were escalating in the Bay Area after the disaster, the UC Regents allocated $150,000 toward construction of the building. Out of respect for Elizabeth Boalt’s contribution, the Regents put her husband’s name on the John Galen Howard-designed building. The central campus structure later was renamed Durant Hall, after the law school relocated in 1951.


More than a century later, in 2017, attorney and Berkeley law lecturer Charles Reichmann found Boalt’s racist writings at the campus’s Bancroft Library while researching the Asian experience in California. In a book published by the state legislature called Chinese Immigration: Its Social, Moral and Political Effect, he said he found a speech by Boalt “and wondered if this was the Boalt of Boalt Hall. It took me a few minutes to determine that John Boalt was the law school’s namesake.”

“At first,” he said, “I wasn’t sure what to do with what I had found, but after a while, it began to seem disconsonant, unbearable, even, to be among so many students with a Chinese ethnic background, indeed, a great many from China itself, when the man for whom the classroom building is named denied their humanity.

“I don’t think everyone is obligated to feel that way about a man who died in 1901. But I couldn’t escape the fact that I did, so I decided to make Boalt’s views on the Chinese better known.”

In the op-ed and law review article that Reichmann subsequently published, he quoted from Boalt’s 1877 address, “The Chinese Question,” to the Berkeley Club. Boalt’s main argument was that two non-assimilating races have “never yet lived together harmoniously on the same soil, unless one of these races was in a state of servitude to the other.”

Durant Hall
Today’s Durant Hall, built by architect John Galen Howard, once was Boalt Memorial Hall of Law, dedicated in 1912 as home to the UC’s School of Jurisprudence. A new law-school complex was built and opened in 1951 as the UC Berkeley School of Law, also known today as Berkeley Law. Photo: Berkeley Law

He also argued that “the Caucasian and Mongolian races are non-assimilated races.” Boalt’s speech came at a time when large numbers of Chinese had begun immigrating to the United States, first for the California Gold Rush and then to work on large labor projects, including the Transcontinental Railroad. Between 1850 and 1880, U.S. Census figures show their numbers grew from about 4,000 to 105,465.

The assimilation of races, Boalt said in his speech, was needed for the “internal harmony essential to a nation’s property and perpetuity.” He cited five reasons why races might fail to assimilate: “physical peculiarities,” “intellectual differences and differences of temperament,” “differences in language and customs,” “hatred engendered by conquest or by clashing of national or race interests” and “religious fanaticism.”

He said that races “of comparatively very slight divergence” — he gave the example of the Normans and the Saxons — took centuries of “barbarities, brutalities and suffering” to assimilate. As a result, Boalt, who also made isolated racist remarks about Africans brought to this country as slaves and about Native Americans, speculated in his address whether it would be preferable to exterminate a strongly dissimilar race.


“(i)t would certainly seem that in an extreme case of divergence as between extermination and this kind of reconciliation, the former were the more agreeable alternative,” Boalt said, stressing the need to stop Chinese immigration.

Charles Reichmann
Charles Reichmann, a lecturer at Berkeley Law, discovered John Henry Boalt’s racist writings in the Bancroft Library in 2017. Photo: UC Berkeley/Irene Yi

A rare denaming in the UC

Boalt’s speech was influential, shared widely and placed in a report to U.S. Congress by California’s Senate Special Committee on Chinese Immigration. That report, Reichmann wrote in his article, was “violently anti-Chinese in character and suited the popular prejudice.” In the 1879 state general election, 95.8% of voters came out against continued Chinese immigration. As a result of California’s lobbying, the issue went national. In 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester Arthur, which, by 1902, had led to a permanent ban on Chinese immigration.

Chinese exclusion in the United States spurred later movements for restrictions on other immigrants, including those from the Middle East, India and Japan. Chinese immigrants and their American-born families remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943, when the Magnuson Act, also called the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, was passed.

Only one other denaming is known to have occurred in the 10-campus UC system because a building’s namesake’s actions were grave enough to compromise public trust. In 2018, UC Irvine removed the Ayala name from its biological sciences school and central science library after an internal investigation substantiated sexual harassment claims against Francisco J. Ayala, the signature donor for both facilities.

Reichmann said he did not explicitly call for the denaming of Boalt Hall when he wrote his op-ed and law review article, but that it was his preferred outcome. He added that he “never sought to erase history. To the contrary. I did everything I could to broadcast it.”

Law student Ari Chivikula (left) and professor Paul Fine
At the UC Berkeley School of Law, the words Boalt Hall (left) were removed on Jan. 30. Law student Ari Chivukula (left) and Professor Paul Fine are members of the Building Name Review Committee, a task force set up by Chancellor Carol Christ, which unanimously recommended to her that Boalt Hall lose its name. Photo: UC Berkeley/Stephen McNally

At the law school, removal of casual uses of the Boalt name, which only require the law school’s blessing, are ongoing. For example, some student and alumni organization names included the word, as did the law school’s online internal directory, RoloBoalt.

Boalt Hall will now be known as The Law Building. The law school complex includes three other buildings — Simon Hall, North Addition and South Addition.

Chemerinsky says he realizes there are strong feelings on all sides of the Boalt Hall case, but that he’s pleased that those who carefully studied the facts — including the law school committee, the chancellor’s Building Name Review Committee, the chancellor and the UC President — “have come to the exact same conclusion: It would be inappropriate to continue to honor John Boalt in light of what we now know of his views and actions.”

“Campuses across the country are dealing with similar questions,” the dean added, “and I think that our careful investigation and civil discussion hopefully can be a model for others grappling with these difficult issues.”

Inside the law school’s main classroom wing, an enlarged photo of the former Boalt Memorial Hall of Law adorns a wall. A special law school faculty and staff committee is addressing what to do with images and wording within the school’s ecosystem. Photo: UC Berkeley/Irene Yi

Students on the Building Name Review Committee stressed that it’s important that they and their peers feel at ease in the buildings where they spend their college careers.

“Having to attend school day after day in a building named after someone who would deny your basic personhood is a real source of ongoing harm,” said Ari Chivukula, a second-year law student at Berkeley, who suggested that funds raised to rename campus buildings pay for “services and programs for marginalized student populations, to ensure all are truly welcome.”

Letters that spelled Boalt Hall were removed from the Berkeley Law building this morning following an announcement by campus officials that Boalt Hall has been denamed. Photo: Berkeley Law /Alex Shapiro

Alex Mabanta, a Ph.D. student in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy department at Berkeley Law and the graduate student representative on the Building Name Review Committee, said the process of denaming Boalt Hall “says to Asian American and Pacific Islander law students, unequivocally: You matter. The process of denaming Boalt Hall says to students of color, unmistakably: You matter. Racial justice matters. We want you to belong to Berkeley Law.”

“If the Chinese Exclusion Act was operative law today,” he said, “I doubt I would be a Berkeley Law student.”

Mabanta said UC Berkeley thrives most when its students “are engines of change. Each of us at UC Berkeley must be vigilant in creating a community we all belong to.”

Undergraduate Victoria Vera, a political science major on the committee, said that, for her, “space is political, at least as a woman of color, a Chicana and a first-generation college student. The campus wasn’t built with me in mind as a student. It’s time to acknowledge the history and also the things that don’t fit our principles anymore.

“Nothing should be stagnant, including the names of buildings. We should be able to decide what legacies we should uphold and which ones we will not. If we’re adamant about equity and inclusion, then we must consider who we honor from the past and the spaces that people on campus today are being given.”

This story was first published by UC Berkeley News on Jan. 30, 2020 and reprinted with permission.