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UC Berkeley carpenter Joe Poppi removes lettering saying “Boalt Hall” from the side of the Berkeley Law building early on Thursday, January 30. UC Berkeley photo by Roxanne Makasdjian

published on March 10, 2020 - 12:18 PM
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UC Berkeley’s law school underwent a name change after racist writings of a famous 19th century Oakland attorney were discovered.

UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall had the name removed from the building on January 30, three years after Berkeley law lecturer Charles Reichmann found writings of John Henry Boalt on the campus library that espoused racist, anti-Chinese sentiments.

Reichmann wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle. Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinksy tasked a law school committee to assess whether the name should be removed.

A report by the law school committee said that Boalt’s “positive contributions to the university do not appear to outweigh this legacy of harm.”

Boalt did not attend or teach at Berkeley’s 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 Boalt Memorial Hall of Law.

In his writing, Boalt argues that two non-assimilating races cannot live together in harmony unless one is serving the other. His speech, “The Chinese Question,” was shared widely in a report to Congress, a few years before it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

There is a number of UC Berkeley Law School graduates working in the Central Valley, with older graduates listing their school in The Business Journal’s annual Legal Directory as Boalt Hall, and more recent graduates listing it as UC Berkeley School of law, illustrating a generational change on how they were told to list it.

Richard M. Oberto, a local attorney who graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law in 2006, said that even when he was in college, there was controversy over the name of the building and other buildings on campus, but there weren’t any organized efforts for name changes.

Oberto said that for a long time, people enjoyed the prestige of having the name “Boalt Hall” being synonymous with the law school and that that suggested a strong reputation.

As more people started to look into the legacy of John Boalt, professors started to tell law students to list their school as UC Berkeley School of Law, but Oberto said he doesn’t know if that was a deliberate move or not.

“The dean decided it was best to change name based on a lot of research and a lot of investigation, and we have to respect what he is doing and that he made the right decision there,” Oberto said. “People might be sorry to see the name change because of how they’ve identified the school for so long, but they will get used to it.”

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