UC Berkeley strips the names of professors with racist views off 3 buildings

LeConte Hall and Barrows Hall will be renamed because their former namesakes advocated white supremacy.

Joey Poppi, a carpenter with UC Berkeley facilities, prepares to cover up the name LeConte Hall on Nov.18. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley has removed the names of two early professors from three buildings after a review board determined that they wrote and acted in support of white supremacy and racist ideals.

The buildings formerly known as Barrows Hall and LeConte Hall (the latter is actually two buildings) will be referred to as the Social Sciences Building and Physics North and Physics South until new names are chosen, the university announced in a press release Wednesday morning. Removal of signage with the old names began Wednesday morning.

The buildings were named in honor of David Prescott Barrows, a UC president from 1919 to 1923 and faculty member from 1910 to 1942; and brothers John and Joseph LeConte. John LeConte was among the first Cal faculty members and was the first acting president of the University of California (there was only one campus back then), while Joseph LeConte was a naturalist who came to Berkeley with his brother in 1869.

Covering up name of Barrows Hall
Joey Poppi, a carpenter with UC Berkeley, pries the letter “B” off of Barrows Hall on Nov. 18. Photo: Pete Rosos

Barrows’ life and writings reveal a “striking pattern of racism” that “advanced the interests of white supremacy,” the Barrows unnaming proposal says. He wrote that “the white, or European, race is, above all others, the great historical race.”

The LeConte brothers owned around 200 enslaved people in Georgia, fought with the Confederacy to continue the practice of slavery and wrote extensively in support of white supremacist ideals, the LeConte proposal says.

“The whites desire earnestly, more earnestly than most of us at a distance can imagine, the real best interest of the negro,” Joseph LeConte wrote in an 1889 article, “The South Revisited.” “They earnestly desire their elevation by education and by acquisition of property; they would grant, I believe, every just right; but all on one condition, viz., that the whites control the policy of the state.”

1899 photo of professor LeConte lecturing at UC Berkeley
Joseph LeConte, photographed here in 1899 giving a birthday lecture, was a “virulent and outspoken racist,” according to the proposal submitted to UC Berkeley’s Building Name Review Committee in July to unname LeConte Hall, which has honored LeConte and his brother, John. Photo: Bancroft Library

Members of the UC Berkeley African American Student Development Office sent the Barrows unnaming proposal to the UC Berkeley Building Name Review Committee in July of this year, and the UC Berkeley physics faculty sent the LeConte proposal in June.

The first push to rename the buildings came from the university’s Black Student Union in 2015, according to the proposals. In the following years, multiple articles and editorials in the Daily Cal called for Barrows’ and LeContes’ names to be removed from their buildings.

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

A UC Berkeley campus facilities worker scrapes the LeConte name off the window of the west facing entrance of the hall, Nov. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
A UC Berkeley campus facilities worker scrapes the LeConte name off the window of the west facing entrance of the hall, Nov. 18, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ sent out a letter explaining the process and decision and said the university is still considering whether to change the name of  Kroeber Hall.

“The legacy of a building’s namesake should be in alignment with the values and mission of the university as expressed in our Principles of Community,” Christ wrote in an email to the campus community. “That was clearly not the case for either of these buildings.”

A process for renaming the buildings is being developed, the press release says.

In January, the university unamed Boalt Hall at the UC Berkeley School of Law. (At one time, it was also referred to as Boalt Law.) A three-year investigation revealed that 19th-century Oakland attorney John Henry Boalt was instrumental in garnering support for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, according to a UC Berkeley News article. It was the country’s “first immigration ban on a specific group of people solely on the basis of race or nationality.”

Movements to remove the names of racist and white supremacist figures from public spaces has gained momentum in recent years, in Berkeley as well as across the country. In 2018, the Berkeley School Board voted to rename LeConte Elementary after Sylvia Mendez, a Californian desegregation advocate and activist. BUSD has said it will also look for new names for Washington and Jefferson elementary schools.

Eden Teller is a contributing reporter for Berkeleyside. Email: eden@berkeleyside.com.