UC Berkeley photo by Roxanne Makasdjian

UC Berkeley Law School "de-names" Boalt Hall

Jan. 30, 2020
The building had been named decades ago for a man whose racist writings were recently found

The University of California Berkeley has removed the name "Boalt Hall" from one of its law school buildings—the outcome of a nearly three-year process launched after the unearthing of the racist writings of John Henry Boalt, the 19th-century Oakland attorney for whom the facility was named.

The university says in a news release that it is the first time a Berkeley facility’s name has been eliminated because of its namesake’s character or actions.

Lettering on the exterior of the building was  removed Thursday morning. Boalt Hall will now be known as The Law Building. The law school complex includes three other buildings — Simon Hall, North Addition and South Addition.

In 1911, newly built Boalt Memorial Hall of Law became home to the university’s fledgling UC School of Jurisprudence. When the law school moved into a new, larger facility in 1951, it was renamed the UC Berkeley School of Law; the name Boalt Hall was given to the main classroom wing.

But for decades, many at Berkeley referred to the entire building complex, and often to the law school itself, as Boalt Hall. And graduates of the law school, which also is known today as Berkeley Law, often were called “Boalties.”

Boalt was instrumental in legitimizing anti-Chinese racism and in catalyzing support for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the nation’s first immigration ban on a specific group of people solely on the basis of race or nationality. Until 2017, his views weren’t well known on campus.

“His principal public legacy is … one of racism and bigotry,"  concluded a 2018 report by a law school committee. "John Boalt’s positive contributions to the university do not appear to outweigh this legacy of harm."

Berkeley’s Building Name Review Committee collected additional campus feedback. Last October, its members recommended the name’s removal from the building. That required and received approval from Chancellor Carol Christ and UC President Janet Napolitano.

In a letter to Napolitano asking her to approve the denaming, Christ wrote, “Removing the Boalt name from our campus—as well as acknowledging our historical ties to John Boalt—will help Berkeley recognize a troubled part of our history, while better supporting the diverse membership of today’s academic community.”

John Henry Boalt, who lived in the East Bay with his wife, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt, didn’t attend or teach at the law school, but after his death in 1901, his widow put property she owned in San Francisco into a $100,000 trust for the university to construct, in his memory, Boalt Memorial Hall of Law.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed most of that real estate, and because building costs were escalating after the disaster, the UC Regents allocated $150,000 toward construction of the building. Out of respect for Elizabeth Boalt’s contribution, the Regents named the building for her husband.

More than a century later, in 2017, attorney and Berkeley law lecturer Charles Reichmann found Boalt’s racist writings at the campus’s Bancroft Library.

“At first,” he says, “I wasn’t sure what to do with what I had found, but after a while, it began to seem disconsonant, unbearable, even, to be among so many students with a Chinese ethnic background, indeed, a great many from China itself, when the man for whom the classroom building is named denied their humanity."

Only one other de-naming is known to have occurred in the 10-campus University of California system because a building’s namesake’s actions were grave enough to compromise public trust. In 2018, UC Irvine removed the Ayala name from its biological sciences school and central science library after an internal investigation substantiated sexual harassment claims against Francisco J. Ayala, the signature donor for both facilities.

At the law school, removal of casual uses of the Boalt name are ongoing. For example, some student and alumni organization names included the word, as did the law school’s online internal directory, RoloBoalt.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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