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San Francisco dropping names of Washington and Lincoln from schools. Will it happen in Utah?

Washington Elementary School at 420 N. 200 West in Salt Lake City.
Washington Elementary School at 420 N. 200 West in Salt Lake City.
Lee Benson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe you heard about this. Three weeks ago, the school board in San Francisco, by a 6-1 vote, agreed with a recommendation from the School Names Advisory Committee to remove the names of 44 schools in the district because of claims of racist actions by the namesakes.

Among them: Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Scott Key, Father Junipero Serra, Herbert Hoover, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (for not removing a Confederate flag from a display when she was mayor of San Francisco).

Also these two you may have heard of: George Washington (for owning slaves) and Abraham Lincoln (for his administration’s oppressive policies regarding Native Americans).

Just in time for Presidents Day.

Which of course brings up the question: Will it happen here in Utah?

Utah has schools named after Washington and Lincoln, several of them actually. Also Jefferson. Are they in jeopardy?

To find out, I visited Lincoln Elementary in the Granite School District and Washington Elementary in the Salt Lake City School District, followed by visits to both district offices.

The topic, I soon discovered, has barely registered.

Neither the principal at Lincoln Elementary nor the assistant principal at Washington Elementary had heard anything about what was going on in San Francisco, nor had anyone in the Salt Lake City School District office.

At Granite District, communications director Ben Horsley was aware of the news. “But there’s been no discussion about it; none whatsoever,” he said.

As to whether there might be a movement to remove any former president’s name from a school in the district, where there’s also an Eisenhower, a Wilson and a Truman, he said, “I cannot think of a single instance where we’ve heard that concern.”

Horsley hastened to point out that there is a virus going around that has everyone’s attention.

“We’re just trying to educate kids here, be attentive, provide curriculum that’s relevant, and get through the pandemic,” he said. “Just even holding school right now is a challenge.”

So it would appear Washington and Lincoln — and Jefferson — are safe. For now.

Still, I found it surprising, or at least telling, that the news that they’re being erased in San Francisco was not met with more incredulity and indignation.

There was a distinct lack of outrage among the educators I spoke with that the father of our country and the great emancipator could be dismissed in such a manner.

While no one said cancel culture this extreme would happen here, no one said it absolutely would not happen, either.

No one pointed out that without Washington and Lincoln there might not even be a country, or there might be two countries and you’d need a passport to go to Alabama.

* * *

Matthew Mason, a full professor of history at BYU who specializes in early American history, cited the country’s current hyper focus on racial equality, “where we’re wrestling with our racist history,” as the backdrop for the purge in San Francisco and the reluctance of people, at least on the record, to come out in opposition to anything that is even remotely race-related.

“It shows the momentum that built over last summer is spreading, especially in some districts,” he said. “I’m not surprised it happened in San Francisco, one of the more liberal environments in the United States.”

“Here in Utah, we seem to start with simpler things,” he said, referencing the recent decision in St. George to change the name of Dixie State University. “It’s like, ‘Can we at least divest ourselves of the Confederacy?’”

BYU history professor Matthew Mason.
BYU history professor Matthew Mason.
BYU

(The soon to be former Dixie State, by the way, is located in Washington County, named after You Know Who, where there is both a Washington Elementary School and a Washington Intermediate School.)

The professor sees George Washington, if he were alive today, scratching his head over the fuss. He was far too busy setting up the republic and looking forward to do much looking back.

Lincoln, on the other hand, “would be supremely unsurprised at Americans arguing over history,” Mason said. “He would definitely have recognized struggling over how to remember our Founding Fathers.

“I am personally uncomfortable going after Lincoln,” Mason concluded, “and same with Washington, although he did hold slaves. But I’m not sure what harm is done (in removing their names). If you renamed every Lincoln and Washington school, that wouldn’t do anything to the history of those men; that’s set.

“We’re not talking about taking away history, we’re talking about what we value right now. What would be much more harmful is holding truly reprehensible people up to honor than the other extreme of the debate.”