What’s in a Name?

Last year, the USF community renamed Phelan Hall to Toler Hall, removing the name of  the San Francisco mayor who ran a white nationalist campaign centered around anti-Asian rhetoric, and instead honoring the first African-American referee in the NFL. Toler was also a star linebacker on USF’s football team, back when we had one. Sadly, Phelan Hall is not the only place that carried the name of such a hateful man. Phelan Avenue, best known for City College’s main campus, continues to bear his name. However, Supervisor Norman Yee is fighting to change the avenue’s name. He will hold a public vote on the future of the name that is expected to take place in one week. Then he will take the winning suggestion to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for approval. If passed, a spokesperson for Yee said the new name will become official in about a year.


I will never support naming streets to honor racists, “erasing history” be damned. Phelan was a terrible man and his policies had a real human cost. How many Japanese and Chinese people were denied entry to the U.S. because of his views? How many white supremacists did his mayorship embolden? When he tried to kick people out of Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake, how many people were left destitute? This is a man who should inspire shame in the city, not someone we should honor with streets and buildings.  


Of course, there are people who want to keep Phelan Avenue named the way it is. Their arguments range from the claim that it would cause paperwork difficulties for those living in that area, to the worn-out argument of “we can’t change history.” I say that honoring racist people with streets is changing history – it’s ignoring the impact they had on people who aren’t white. This is an argument that doesn’t just apply to Phelan Avenue, but to places all over the country named for Confederate generals and leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.



Do we learn our history through buildings and street names? No. We glorify people though street names. We learn history through books and classes. In fact, I wish more people were taught about Phelan and his racist past. Asking to remove Phelan from the city is not erasing what he did or what he’s done. When we give someone a statue or a street name, we are saying that they represent our values. We are saying that we want them to be someone that everyone in the city should know about, for the right reasons. San Francisco is a city of inclusiveness, diversity and compassion – none of which were shared by Phelan. It is true that, if Phelan Avenue’s name is changed, it would make official paperwork harder for the workers and would take a year to complete. But our city’s character is worth the inconvenience.


The most popular potential new name of the street is after the iconic painter, Frida Kahlo, who is featured on a mural on the City College campus. Rather than a street being named after a man who oppressed minority groups, let’s name a street after a woman who is an inspiration to many marginalized people.


I can’t think of any greater demonstration of San Franciscan values than replacing a street named after a racist with a street named after an anti-imperialist, gender-nonconforming Mexican woman.


Photos: James D. Phelan was the mayor of SF from 1897-1902 and a senator from 1915-1921   / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


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