“So who is Peter Burnett anyway?” asked San Francisco school board commissioner Sandra Lee Fewer.
I didn’t trust anyone else to answer, so I stood up in the audience before the staff could reply and made my way to the speaker’s podium.
The setting was the Buildings and Grounds Committee meeting of the board Monday night. The one action item of the night was the motion by commissioner Kim-Shree Maufas to change the name of the Peter Burnett Child Development Center to honor the first black woman principal in the district.
About 15 minutes before the meeting started, I received an e-mail that the item would be on the agenda. I dropped everything and made a bee-line for the school district offices.
“This is very appropriate because of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,” I began. “There was a contest over whether California would be a free state or a slave state and Peter Burnett was a leader of the Southern sympathizers. When he became governor of California in 1850, he signed the right of testimony act in 1851 which took away the right to testify in court from blacks, Asians and Native Americans. He also signed the franchise act which also took the right to vote away from those groups.”
By way of context, Burnett’s acts created a huge shift in the direction of history. Just two years earlier, an African-American millionaire William Alexander Leidesdorff had established California’s first public school. There isn’t a single school named for him. Leidesdorff also had an agreement with John Sutter to split the gold diggings in the Delta, but died in 1848 before he could take advantage of it. The impact of Burnett’s laws was to make it difficult for these three groups to hold on to mining claims during the Gold Rush.
Specifically, the right of testimony act kept Leidesdorff’s mother from testifying in the probate case that led to John Sutter winding up with Leidesdorff’s $1.4 million estate in 1854.
In response to Burnett, there was a counterveiling force to keep California in the Union–the Gold Rush Abolitionists. Mifflin Gibbs and George Washington Dennis formed the Franchise League in 1851 as an arm of the National Underground Railroad.
Five organizations began in 1852 — Hannibal Lodge No. 1, Victoria Lodge No. 3, Bethel A.M.E. Church, First A.M.E. Zion and Third Baptist Church — in response to the threat created by Burnett, who only missed by one vote a bill to ban blacks from entering California.
Each of those five organizations is still active today, 159 nine years later. They’re the focal points of a context statement on African-American historic sites in San Francisco I’m presenting in weeks to the State Historical Resources Commission. The Victorian Alliance will hold a meeting at the Hannibal Lodge No. 1 this spring to hear about my research.
But the leaders of the school board did not know about Burnett and his history. The current pastor of Third Baptist Church, Dr. Amos C. Brown Jr., decided to have the name stricken from the school after reading about him while hospitalized.
Dr. Brown gave more details about Burnett. He traced his life through Mormon settlements in Utah and Oregon, where Burnett was responsible for the anti-Negro immigration law which was actually passed. Then he came to California.
In my new book Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco and the context statement, I make the observation that the Underground Railroad never ended in San Francisco because of the continuity of conscience of these organizations.
There could not have been a more telling example of that continuity than the continuing presence of Burnett’s name on a school in a predominately black area of San Francisco.
The committee readily agreed with the change and sent the recommendation to Tuesday’s full board meeting for a first reading and final vote on April 12.
Much bigger is the notion that the full history of the state has not been shared. There are many more Peter Burnett schools in the state, in San Jose, Sacramento, Hawthorne, Long Beach. I almost sent my son to the Peter Burnett Middle School in San Jose two decades ago. Clearly, the history of his tenure is not being taught.
April 3 is the anniversary of the day when Leidesdorff dedicated the state’s first school. That too was a revelation to the board members. There isn’t a single school in the state named for him.
Between now and April 3, we are providing the Attucks-Leidesdorff Institute–daily lesson plans on how to infuse culturally-responsive content into the California history-social science frameworks.
And we present Gold Rush Abolitionists as an online resource on the period of the 1850s.
When school districts take advantage of these materials, they will find students more than ready to embrace them.