Despite progress made in race relations, roads, historical monuments, and buildings across the country still bear the names of individuals who perpetrated atrocities against African American and Native American communities. The politicization of urban centers and historical architecture sheds light on the disparity between our nation’s evolved values and the architectural veneration of its past.
This tension has extended into the academic arena as universities — including Stanford, Yale, and Princeton — grapple with questions of whether they too should rename their buildings memorializing Serra, Calhoun, and Wilson.
The argument reached Stanford in March last year when Leo Bird introduced an Undergraduate Senate resolution to rename the Serra and Junipero dorms, Serra House, and Serra Mall (Stanford’s primary address). This legislation subsequently spurred the administration to establish a committee to deliberate whether these buildings ought to be stripped of the name ‘Serra.’ While the committee has struggled with approving this measure due to concerns over reducing students’ access to history, few students know Serra’s background despite our main address being attributed to him. As such, our administration could successfully respect the Native American student community while also increasing awareness about Serra through educational seminars and content about the historical figure instead of futilely attempting to spread awareness by controversially leaving buildings in his name.
A member of the Franciscan Order, Junipero Serra arrived in San Diego in 1769 and founded nine of California’s twenty-one missions. While Pope Francis canonized him as “a great evangelizer,” Serra is controversial for his detrimental impact on California’s Native American community.
Serra perceived Native Americans as heathens requiring saving by God. Through his missions, he baptized thousands of natives, and, according to the church, "...christianized and civilized” them. However, Native American descendants tell a different tale.
Andrew Salas, the Tribal Chairman of the Kizh Nation, recounts in an open letter:
To the Natives of California he is considered a common murderer... we often equate oppression, abuse, torture, and death with his image....The missions were prisons & death camps for my people. Under Serra’s orders, they were jailed at night, starved, tortured and raped. By day, they were a source of slave labor.
Accounts indicate that Serra mistreated the very natives he aimed to save. According to one anecdote, when captive natives attempted to escape, Serra impulsed to hang them, exclaiming “...such a race of people [deserves] to be put to the knife.”
While Serra’s critics are outspoken, his supporters portray a different character. Ruben Mendoza, a professor at Cal State University Monterey Bay of Yaqui Indian descent explains,
I've met with American Indian groups who tell their students... how the California missionaries raped, plundered and murdered Native American civilization. But I go through Serra's own documents and I don't see any of that. Serra was not just a man of his time, but a man who was ahead of his time when it came to advocating for the rights of Native American people... he learned the languages of the natives. There were 300 to 400 Indians crowding his bedside as he lay dying, who wept and prayed for him.
However, objective documentation of his violence towards Native Americans is scarce. Consequently, it is difficult to unequivocally determine whether Serra physically harmed the Native Americans he sought to baptize. Furthermore, Serra contributed to the construction of El Camino Real. What can be asserted without question, however, is that as founder of California's first missions, Serra lay the foundations for the system’s longevity. The Spanish leveraged Serra’s mission network to enslave natives under the thinly veiled cover of spreading Christianity. As president of the California missions, Serra embraced and upheld the church’s doctrine of enslaving natives through minimally paid labor. While less than a quarter of the native inhabitants were converted, under the mission system’s governance, Native American culture was erased and population decreased by over ninety-percent. Stanford and other institutions now confront the dilemma of determining whether buildings honoring him, and those like him, require renaming.
Stanford’s committee would do well to consider the decisions of other colleges in its decision. Yale recently rechristened Calhoun College as Hopper College. A graduate of the Yale Class of 1804, member of the House of Representatives, senator, and U.S. Vice President, Calhoun was a prominent proponent of slavery. However, the decision to rename Calhoun was prolonged. After two years of debate, Yale’s administration vetoed the renaming proposal. President Salovey argued that erasing the university’s history was antithetical to the institution’s spirit. Nevertheless, Yale faculty banded together and, in a letter with 396 signatures, urged the president to reverse his decision. While the signatories commended the president’s effort to preserve history, they retorted that “the name of a residential college...confers honor to the namesake....residential college names at Yale shape the student community in a distinctive and lasting manner.”
However, Stanford should also keep in mind the reasons some institutions have chosen to opt out of the renaming movement. A prime example for consideration is Princeton, where students’ 32-hour sit-in outside the president’s office spurred the administration to form a committee to consider renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Woodrow Wilson College. As Princeton’s president, Wilson moved to prevent enrollment of African American students, and, as U.S. President, he re-segregated the civil service. Like Yale, Princeton facilitated open forums, created a committee tasked with making a decision, and launched a website for students and faculty to share views. Princeton’s failure to rename its buildings likely stems from the lack of faculty advocacy of the student campaign. Support from over three-hundred Yale faculty starkly contrasted the relative silence of the faculty at Princeton.
Stanford ought to study these examples while ensuring that our community balances preservation of history with transparency about Serra’s wrongdoings. This balance can be struck by imparting Serra’s history through mandatory history seminars and increasing access to records of California missions’ history without venerating it. While some argue that renaming buildings “rewrites” or “erases” the past, history can be otherwise honored. In 1784, King’s College was re-christened as Columbia College and, eventually, as Columbia University. Despite the change in name, the institution conserved its history by safeguarding the crown as its symbol. Nevertheless, the university leveraged its new name to reflect a shift in values, political ideology, and culture.
In the past months, it has become evident that Stanford’s renaming committee will not reach a decision by its December deadline. As such, President Tessier-Lavigne announced two weeks ago that the administration would form two separate committees continuing the mandate of the last: defining clear renaming guidelines for monuments and buildings at Stanford and applying those guidelines to structures bearing Serra’s name.
The administration's ambivalence about renaming is a consequence of a profound tension: a desire to simultaneously memorialize Californian history and respect the Native American community. Stanford, however, should not hesitate renaming buildings for fear of overwriting history. Indeed, memorialization and commemoration are distinct. We can preserve Serra’s history through education, books, and museums. And by renaming edifices in Serra’s name, we can, once and for all, stop revering him.