University of S.F. Renames Phelan Hall in Honor of Burl A. Toler

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Former San Francisco mayor, U.S. senator was virulently anti-Asian.

An unveiling ceremony marked the transition from Phelan Hall to Toler Hall. (USF Diversity)

SAN FRANCISCO – In a year when the removal of Confederate statues is an issue in the South and replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is an issue in Los Angeles, the University of San Francisco took a step toward re-evaluating history without a minimum of controversy.

In May, USF dedicated Burl A. Toler Hall, renaming the student residence Phelan Hall, in honor of Burl Toler (’52, MA ’66), who was the co-captain of USF’s famous 1951 football team, the first African American official in a major American professional sports league, and a noted Bay Area educator.

To commemorate the event and what would have been Toler’s 89th birthday, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee pronounced May 9, 2017 as Burl A. Toler Day in the city.

The names of various streets and landmarks around the city often date back decades or even a century or more, and many residents are unaware of the historical figures behind the names. In the case of Phelan, the name change was the culmination of an effort by USF students and the university’s administration to address the historical legacy of James D. Phelan (1861-1930) and celebrate the memory of a hometown hero.

An 1881 graduate of USF (then called St. Ignatius College), Phelan served as mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902 and was the first president of the League of California Cities. Although remembered for his public service and contributions to the growing city, he also established himself as a leader in what fellow anti-Japanese agitator V.S. McClatchy described as the “holy cause” of excluding Japanese immigrants.

James Phelan

According to a Mercury News report published July 31, Phelan also demanded the exclusion of all Chinese and the establishment of laws forbidding marriage between Asians and Caucasians, claiming that the children of such unions would be “degenerates.” After the destruction of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1906 earthquake and fire, he campaigned for the relocation of all “Mongolians” in the city to the Hunters Point area. He asserted that Japanese bred “like vermin” and were totally incapable of assimilation.

Phelan remained active in the anti-Japanese movement after leaving office, securing then-presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson’s support for restricting Japanese immigration in 1912 and helping to push through California’s discriminatory Alien Land Law in 1913, thus preventing the Issei — who were barred by law from U.S. citizenship — from owning agricultural land or securing leases for more than three years.

As a Democrat, Phelan ran for the U.S. Senate against Republican Joseph R. Knowland and Progressive Francis J. Heney. He was elected to the Senate in 1914 and served from 1915 to 1921. Although he had toned down his anti-Japanese rhetoric during World War I, when the U.S. and Japan were allies, Phelan once again began to speak out against the “Yellow Peril” in 1919, delivering a speech in favor of Japanese exclusion before a special session of the California Legislature.

He was an unsuccessful candidate for re-election in 1920, defeated by Republican Samuel M. Shortridge, coming in second with 40 percent of the vote. He ran a racially tinged campaign; one of his posters contained the headline “Keep California White.” This poster is displayed at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

“Save our state from Oriental aggression,” read one of his posters, which listed a series of statistics meant to frighten voters — Japanese population: 41,000 in 1910, 100,000 in 1920; acreage controlled by Japanese: 83,000 in 1909, 458,000 in 1920; Japanese birthrate in 18 agricultural counties: 12.3 percent of all births; in rural Los Angeles County: 33.4 percent; in rural Sacramento County: 49.7 percent.

Burl Toler

Phelan returned to banking and collected art. He remained active in the anti-Japanese movement, collaborating with McClatchy and the Japanese Exclusion League of California to successfully ban Japanese immigrants from entering the country with the Immigration Act of 1924.

Upon his death, the city’s morning newspaper eulogized him as “the great son of San Francisco” and he lay in state in City Hall. Services were held at Saint Ignatius Church on the USF campus and he was buried in the family mausoleum at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. USF’s first student residence hall was named for him when it was built in 1955.

SF Foghorn reported that a group of students held an unofficial retiring ceremony for Phelan Hall in March with a performance piece in which an actor playing Phelan ranted about “Oriental people” and told them to “go back where you came from,” then was sent packing by a group of angry USF students.

A team that many argue was the best collegiate football team of all time, the 1951 Dons unanimously refused to leave the team’s two African American players behind and opted out of all post-season bowl games. Toler (1928-2009) went on to make sports history as the first African American official in the NFL.

“The USF community of students, faculty, staff and alumni is proud to recognize our distinguished alumnus, Burl A. Toler,” said USF President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. “This dedication helps to ensure that future Dons will learn his name and his story, and that Toler’s legacy will live in the heart of our campus, in the heart of our city.”

Toler received a bachelor’s degree, teaching credentials, and a master’s in educational administration from USF. In 1968, he became San Francisco’s first African American secondary school principal, taking the helm of Benjamin Franklin Middle School, where he remained for 17 years. The school’s Western Addition campus was dedicated to Toler in 2006 and is now the home of Gateway Public Schools.

Toler served as a member of the University of San Francisco Board of Trustees from 1987-1998, and on the San Francisco Police Commission from 1977-1986.

Members of the Toler family and Bill Henneberry, a member of the renowned 1951 football team, were among the speakers at the dedication ceremony.

“It is gratifying to see the vision and values of our community more concretely reflected in the name of a student residence hall,” said Shaya Kara, president of the Associated Students of USF (ASUSF). “In memorializing Burl Toler, we are recognizing an alumnus whose story helps propel our commitment to social justice and community engagement.”

Following several years of discussion and protest about Phelan’s name on the residence hall, the student senate, ASUSF, passed a resolution to rename the hall. The university is exploring opportunities to address Phelan’s complex biography.

“We cannot scrub Phelan from our history, nor turn away from the complexity of his story,” said Fr. Fitzgerald. “Phelan used xenophobia to gain political office, and then worked for the reconstruction of the city following the earthquake and fire of 1906. It’s important that our community recognizes that the temptation to run campaigns built on racism and fear of immigration, which was typical of Phelan’s era, continues to exist today around the world.”

On Aug. 21, SFGate posted an article on “The Ugly Pasts of Famous Men Whose Names Grace S.F. Landmarks.” Among them was Justin Herman, who, as executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, spearheaded the redevelopment that displaced thousands of residents — mainly African Americans and Japanese Americans — from 60 city blocks of the Western Addition and Fillmore District in the 1960s. A plaza on the waterfront is named in his honor.

In addition to Christopher Columbus and Friar Junipero Serra, who are accused of enslaving Native Americans, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves, other local figures were listed:

– Gen. Frederick Funston, who said that he personally hanged 35 Filipinos without trial during the Philippine-American War and that anyone who opposed the war should be dragged out of their homes and lynched.

– Explorer, frontiersman, abolitionist and soldier-turned-politician John C. Fremont, who led his men in massacres of non-hostile Native American villages on at least two occasions.

– John Sutter, sometimes considered one of California’s founding fathers, who forced Native Americans into indentured servitude to work on his land and was accused of kidnapping, food privation and slavery.

– Serranus Hastings, founder of UC Hastings College of the Law, who promoted and financed Indian-hunting expeditions in the 1850s.

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