Printed on page 9 of the July 10, 2013 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

The Burnett Elementary School site is going through an extensive $7 million remodel project as it is modernized to serve as the new home of Morgan Hill’s continuation high school. Considering the questionable character of the man the school is named after, the campus should not only undergo a remodeling, but also a renaming.

Burnett School is the oldest school in the Morgan Hill Unified School District, opening Oct. 10, 1855 to serve the children of Burnett Township, now known as Madrone.The township and the school were named for Gov. Peter Hardeman Burnett, a Gold Rush pioneer who lived in Alviso. His claim to historic fame is that he served as the California’s first state governor.

More than likely, you’ve never heard of Gov. Burnett. He was a contentious character considered incompetent by many of his fellow politicians as well as the newspapers of his day. Burnett would today be described as a “white supremacist.” He held strong views of racial intolerance toward blacks, Asians and Native Americans. In 1850, Burnett signed a law that allowed for the state-mandated genocide of Native Americans. Many hid their true cultural heritage by pretending to be Mexican to avoid Burnett’s racial extermination.

In his speech to the Legislature on Jan. 7, 1851, Burnett said, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate the result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”
Thankfully, Burnett’s tenure as governor was a short one. California’s most staunchly racist governor abruptly resigned after a little more than a year. Last month, the Morgan Hill Historical Society opened an exhibit at its history museum featuring the Amah Mutsun Indian tribe that populated the South Valley region long before Europeans arrived.

At the event, tribal chairperson Valentin Lopez gave a talk describing how Native Americans in California suffered much abuse starting with the arrival of Spanish missionaries and soldiers and continuing well into the twentieth century.Among the long list of travesties, he described Gov. Burnett’s attempt to exterminate California’s Indian population. On June 25, Lopez spoke to the MHUSD board of trustees to ask the district to change the name of Burnett School to something more sensitive to Native Americans and other minorities.

The trustees should not take lightly the renaming of any public school. The MHUSD has a clearly-written policy on how its schools are named. Among its provisions is one reserving the authority by the school board to terminate the naming right of a school based on several criteria including the grantee’s “unlawful discrimination against any person or group, or promoting the use of violence.” Gov. Burnett fits that criteria perfectly. And there is a precedent. In 2011, a San Francisco public school named after Burnett changed its name in respect to minority students.

Based on the history of Gov. Burnett’s treatment of minorities in the early days of the state of California, it is fitting for the trustees to consider renaming Burnett School before it is re-opened as a continuation high school in August.This is the right thing to do. This is the right time to do it. It would be in the best interest of the students of the new school, many of whom are minorities, to not be associated with an educational facility named after a historic figure as racially bigoted as Burnett.

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If the trustees do favor to change the name, what will the former Burnett School be called? The administration will most likely draw a list of possible names for the trustees. I suggest that list includes Charles Kellogg, an educator who made his home in Morgan Hill more than a century ago. Little known now, Kellogg had a significant impact on the world.

During his life, Kellogg was nationally and internationally famous as “the Nature Singer” for his ability to warble like a bird on the vaudeville stage. More importantly, he used his celebrity to educate the public on the need to protect the natural environment. He particularly focused on California’s magnificent redwood trees. As a friend of John Muir, he worked to inspire a national movement to protect the natural world. Among his more unusual accomplishments, he “invented” the recreational vehicle, creating the first RV by placing a redwood tree on a truck chassis and traveling the nation to show the public these wondrous trees.

Kellogg, better than Burnett, represents Morgan Hill’s community values. Kellogg demonstrates our respect of the natural environment. His accomplishments are notable enough for the old Burnett campus to be renamed Charles Kellogg High School.

Marty Cheek