School leaders and parents at Jedediah Smith Elementary are pushing to change the name of their Sacramento school, saying two unsettling aspects of the explorer's past have prompted conversations about honoring a local volunteer.
District trustees voted last week to allow the school to form a committee to look into the name change. It's clear there is already a front-runner: school volunteer Leataata "Taata" Floyd, 70.
Floyd's after-school tutoring and hula dance class have become popular mainstays at Jedediah Smith Elementary, at 401 McClatchy Way next to two sprawling low-income public housing developments south of downtown.
"We did a little research and there is a problem with Jedediah Smith," said school Principal Billy Aydlett. "He was a slave owner. He believed Native Americans were not full human beings."
Aydlett said those aspects of Smith's biography are particularly troubling since more than 50 percent of the 280 students at the school are black. The school had three students who classified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native during the 2010-2011 school year, according to state data.
"Several people in the community did not like what Jed Smith stood for," said school board member Ellyne Bell. "They think they would like to name it in honor of Taata. It's great for kids to see that someone who does good things is being honored."
Jedediah Smith biographer Barton Barbour said he fears the mountain man and fur trader's past is being taken out of context. If owning slaves is grounds for changing a school's name, Barbour said, there would be no schools named after George Washington.
"This is what historians call presentism, applying today's ethical standards to people who lived centuries ago," said Barbour, the history department chair at Boise State. "It's misguided."
Barbour said Smith, who was born Jan. 6, 1799, and died May 27, 1831, left an incredible legacy and has 75 monuments around the country named after him, mostly in California. In Sacramento County, the American River Parkway bike trail is formally known as the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail.
Across the country, there is only one public school the Sacramento campus currently named after the explorer, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"His real legacy as a mapmaker and explorer puts him in the same class as Lewis and Clark," Barbour said. "Yes, he owned two slaves. My sense of it was (after buying a house in St. Louis) like any high roller in that town you had to own a slave to have social standing. It's an awful truth. If you condemn someone for that, you will have an endless list."
Aydlett, the school principal, said the name change isn't just about who Jedediah Smith was or wasn't. He said it is a part of the school's attempt to turn around a chronically failing school, where teacher turnover was high and expectations were low.
Two years ago, Jedediah Smith Elementary was named a Priority School, a label Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond gave to schools persistently among the worst academically in the district.
With the label came plans to drastically overhaul the school, starting with Aydlett's appointment. Aydlett said the school has adopted a less-scripted curriculum, embraced the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project and hired a staff committed to sticking around.
He said his strategy has been to get students to like school by making it relevant. "There is no one more relevant than Taata at our school," he said. "Ask anyone if Taata does good for our kids. They will say yes. She believes in these kids."
Floyd has been volunteering for eight years at the school, which two of her six children attended. She lives nearby in Seavey Circle.
Her son Malcom plays for the San Diego Chargers. Another son, Malcolm, teaches and coaches football at McClatchy High School.
Floyd said she initially didn't want the school named after her. Now, she said if it is, she will make sure it's a successful school.