A group of students who use performing arts to promote social justice recently put on a production last Monday, March 27 that served as an unofficial retiring ceremony of the Phelan name from the façade of USF’s first dormitory. It was also announced that the residence hall would be renamed after a different USF alumnus – Burl Toler. After leaving the Hilltop, Toler carved out a successful career in the NFL as the first black official in a major American professional sports league.
Built in 1955, Phelan Hall was named after James D. Phelan, a U.S. senator from California and mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. However, Phelan’s vision for San Francisco is one that many found disturbing. He ran his reelection campaign on the slogan “Keep California White,” establishing himself as a vocal anti-Japanese politician, with much of his racially charged rhetoric targeting Chinese immigrants as well.
Students on campus have been working on passing legislation to rename Phelan Hall since last April, when students senators Sean McCarthy and Shaya Kara introduced a resolution for changing the name. This past August, both the ASUSF Senate and USF’s Board of Trustees approved the resolution, signaling a new era for the building.
Even if the residents of Phelan Hall were unaware of the fact that the dorm’s namesake was a man of questionable character, the decor in their windows reflect that they disapprove of his racist worldview. Progressive banners such as “We stand with Muslims,” “FDT,” and overwhelmingly, “Black Lives Matter” grace the windows of Phelan Hall.
On March 27, tenants of those rooms peered out to see students from the Chinese percussion class playing the thudding theme song for the event on drums, just as it was announced on a speakerphone that a performance brigade was about to take place.
Sophomore Anissa Evans, a Phelan Hall resident, said Phelan’s “philosophy is still [a part of USF] as long as his name exists. Even though we believe social justice is what we’re pushing for, we can’t represent that if the name of someone who is racist and against the things that we are pushing for still exists,” she said.
The event, which was organized by the Performing Arts and Social Justice department, featured two classes from the department, Chinese Percussion and Performance Brigade.
Evan Boukidis, a student in the performance brigade class, said the course is “all about finding things in the world that we are against…and trying to find a way to peacefully protest through art,” he said.
Director of the theater program Roberto Varea coaches the performers, and said that although the class had been available for years, it recently suffered a lull in participation. “The current [political] climate seemed like the perfect time to revive the performance brigade,” he said.
This performance serves as the second installation of work that the class has presented this semester. The first was when they put on a performance at the “No Ban, No Wall” march organized on Feb. 9, intended to protest recent actions taken by the Trump administration which targets marginalized groups both inside and outside of the United States.
As for how the class chooses their topics, Varea said “It’s all generated by discussion with the class, what matters to students of this school, and that’s how we work toward the next project.” He then disclosed that the class is planning at least one more production before the end of the year.
The performance itself featured Tyler Wade as James D. Phelan, with typical 1900’s garb, top hat and faux handle bar mustache included. Wade could be seen through the windows of the dorm’s entrance already in character, fuming at the idea of a Chinese percussion band playing in front of his building. Phelan burst out, screaming at the band, menacingly asking “What are you oriental people up to?” before telling them to “go back from where you came from.”
The rest of the class played current Phelan residents, or concerned USF students, who demanded that Phelan leave the premises. “We’ve being seeing you for a long time, and we do not want to see you anymore,” said Priyanka Panda. The production ended with a defeated Phelan packing his belongings inside a bindle and walking gloomily away from the residence hall, symbolically representing the departure of Phelan from USF.
ASUSF Senate President Shaya Kara concluded the gathering by announcing that a name had already been chosen to replace Phelan’s. “I’m just here to let you all know that on May 9 we will have a ceremony to change the name of Phelan Hall to Burl Toler Hall, who was an alumni of USF,” said Kara. “He was the first black NFL official, he came back to get his masters in education and teach in San Francisco, and also served on the Board of Trustees.”
“Phelan definitely isn’t a legacy that we are keeping…the legacy we are keeping is the one that we see here today. Of community activism, of organizing, and of making changes,” said Kara.
Photos by Brian Healy/ Foghorn