Once upon a time I dropped out of a law school in California (because I didn’t like it). But I decided to stay in the state for a year or two longer, get California residency, and then apply to one of a couple of University of California law schools where I believed I had special connections. One was Boalt Hall, the law school at Cal Berkeley. The other, across the Bay in San Francisco, was a smaller, older school called Hastings School of Law. An old friend of mine had just become director of admissions at one of these places, while the father of another friend was dean of the other school.
In the event, I never bothered to apply to either. Because I thought I’d make a lousy lawyer. But every once in a long while I’d check up on Boalt or Hastings—just to see how they were ranking, you know. And now I’ve discovered that Boalt Hall is no more! They pulled the signage off the school three years ago, and now the school goes by the nondescript moniker of ”UC Berkeley School of Law,” or some variant thereof.
The reason for the name change is that the school now has a lot of ”Asian” students, and old Mr. John Henry Boalt is partly blamed for the anti-Chinese immigration campaign back in the 1870s. Boalt once had the audacity to deliver a speech called ”The Chinese Question” [PDF], a long-forgotten essay that he read out before the Berkeley Club in 1877. It was later read on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and is said to have contributed to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act a few years later (1882).
Leader of the anti-Boalt charge was one Charles Reichmann [Email him] [Anti-Chinese Racism at Berkeley: The Case for Renaming Boalt Hall, by Charles Reichmann, 25 Asian Am. L. J. 5 (2018)], a lecturer who claims he was scouring the Bancroft Library archives about five years ago and suddenly stumbled across the Boalt speech. ”I was kind of shocked... shocked that the law school at which I teach was associated with this person... because Berkeley’s student body is significantly Asian, significantly Chinese, and it just struck me as being out of tune with the university...”
Credible story? Judge for yourself: How the discovery of a racist speech led to the denaming of Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, by Tor Haugan, UC Berkeley, February 6, 2020.
A sad/comic aspect here is that while John Henry Boalt (1837-1901) may have been a prominent East Bay attorney 150 years ago, he’s otherwise a most obscure figure. A faculty member tells me that 99% of the student body had probably never heard of him, or had any clue why or how the law school came to be named Boalt Hall. (It was an endowment from Boalt’s widow, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt.)
In fact, I am told the school had really wanted to change the name for decades, simply for name recognition. Most people couldn’t identify it as the law school at UC Berkeley. So the ”racism” controversy may have been just a convenient pretext.
More important, the story of Boalt largely revises the usual pop-history spin about the origins of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Nine times out of ten, the anti-Chinese campaign of the 1870s is derided as an initiative by unemployed, bedraggled ”Irish immigrants” who were mad because they had to compete with Chinese coolies for ditch-digging jobs. (A typical online-encyclopedia example.)
But now the story of Mr. Boalt—of the Berkeley Club and Bohemian Grove, and president of the local bar association—tells us that the Chinese Exclusion Act really arose with substantial support among California civic leaders.
And now we turn to the other law school, Hastings School of Law in San Francisco. This was likewise named after an obscure figure from 19th century California, one Serranus Clinton Hastings (1814-1893). Mr. Hastings’s purported sin is being ”someone that committed genocide on Native California Indians” [sic] way back in the mid-1800s [ UC Hastings College of the Law to rename school after reviewing founder’s role in mass killings of Yuki Indians, by Melissa Gomez, L.A. Times, November 6, 2021].
A year and a half ago, the school’s board of directors voted to change the name to something else, e.g., UC College of the Law. However the switchover has been more complicated than just pulling the metal sign-letters out of the building’s exterior. The Hastings name was enshrined in California law when the school opened in the 1870s, and new legislation was needed to delete it.
So a bill was recently passed, Gavin Newsom signed it, and thus as of January the school’s website tells us that ”UC Hastings is now UC Law SF.”
But that’s not the end of the story. As of last October, six descendants of S. C. Hastings are suing to undo the name change... or else return to them the $100,000 in gold that Hastings provided to found the school, which with interest is now reckoned to be worth $1.7 billion [Hastings descendants dispute law school name is racist. They want the name kept—or a $1.7 billion payout, by Nanette Asimov, S.F. Chronicle, October 4, 2022].
Included in the lawsuit is what amounts to a claim of posthumous libel on the benefactor. The suit claims the name change, with the ”genocide” accusations, also defames Hastings’ descendants and even the school’s law graduates. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
“(T)here is no known evidence that S.C. Hastings desired, requested, or knowingly encouraged any atrocities against Native Americans,” the suit asserted, and neither Hastings nor his descendants have had “any opportunity for a judicial trial as to these horrific allegations,” the suit said. It said the state’s subsequent action “heaps scorn and punishment upon S.C. Hastings, his descendants, and indeed, by association, upon all of the tens of thousands of Hastings law graduates living and deceased.
UC Hastings’ name change spawned a potential $1.7 billion lawsuit. Will it hold up in court? by Bob Egelko, October 11, 2022
This looks like an exceptionally novel brief, and I expect there will be a political push to dismiss it as frivolous or vexatious. The fact that the litigants are represented by the publicity-seeking Harmeet Dhillon firm of San Francisco might be a plus or a minus in that regard.
But it’s refreshing to see descendants fight back against the defamation and Canceling of their ancestors.
It’s something we all should do.
Jane Weir (Email her) is an American girl living in an American town in the 21st century.