California

He suggested exterminating Chinese immigrants. His name is on a UC Berkeley building.

Boalt Hall, at University of California Berkeley, could soon be renamed, after it came to light that the building’s namesake penned virulently anti-Chinese sentiments that helped lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Boalt Hall, at University of California Berkeley, could soon be renamed, after it came to light that the building’s namesake penned virulently anti-Chinese sentiments that helped lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act. UC Berkeley

A building synonymous with the University of California Berkeley School of Law may soon be stripped of its name, more than a year after revelations that the building’s namesake was anti-Chinese and whose writings were influential in supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Boalt Hall, named for 19th century San Francisco attorney John Boalt, houses many of the law school’s classrooms — the building was dedicated in 1911 after Boalt’s widow made a sizable donation to the school, according to “The case for renaming Boalt Hall,” a column published by Charles Reichman, an attorney and lecturer at Berkeley Law School, in the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2017.

In his research, Reichman discovered Boalt’s role in promoting anti-Chinese beliefs. Boalt argued in a speech called “The Chinese Question” of “an unconquerable repulsion” of Americans to Chinese people that would prevent Chinese immigrants from ever assimilating, according to the column.

A petition calling for Folsom’s Negro Bar Recreation Area to be renamed is gaining traction online, arguing that the current race-related name in a Sacramento, California suburb is outdated and offensive.

Boalt also wondered whether it would be better to exterminate the Chinese immigrants rather than assimilate them, according to Reichman’s research.

Boalt’s speech was included in an official report from the state of California, that ended up being influential in the Chinese Exclusion Act’s passage, Reichman wrote.

The discovery shook many in the legal community who had viewed the hall through a lens of affection; many of the law school’s graduates refer to themselves as “Boalties.”

“I was extremely upset to hear that (Boalt) had advocated for the Chinese Exclusion Act,” said Miriam Kim, a 2002 graduate and co-chair of the Berkeley Law Asian Pacific American Alumni Association, according the American Bar Association. “Boalt Hall was such a diverse and inclusive place for a woman of color like me, so it was disappointing to hear that John Boalt was racist and a major proponent of the act.”

First-year student Kevin Chen told NBC Bay Area that while Boalt’s wife’s donation had a positive impact on the school, “He said those things; they’re part of our history. We have to recognize that we can’t erase that.”

But what could be erased is Boalt’s name from the hall.

That’s what is under consideration.

“There’s no doubt that what John Boalt said was despicable and racist. The question is what do we do about it now,” Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said, according to NBC News.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Chemerinsky is expected this month to decide whether he will move to strip the Boalt name from both the hall and two endowed chair professorships that also carry the name.

The law school has received more than 2,500 comments over the past several months, with nearly half calling for Boalt’s name to be removed and a third favoring keeping it in place, according to the LA Times.

One commenter in favor, 1971 graduate Brad Barber, told the LA Times that he proudly calls himself a Boaltie and that “We begin to tie ourselves in knots if we look for virtue in contemporary terms of everyone who went before us.”

The removal of the Boalt name has been approved by a special committee. If approved by the dean, it would go before the UC Berkeley chancellor, the LA Times reports.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler
Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments