How the discovery of a racist speech led to the denaming of Berkeley’s Boalt Hall

Charles Reichmann
In 2017, Charles Reichmann, above, made a surprise discovery at The Bancroft Library that uncovered anti-Chinese views of Boalt Hall’s historical namesake. (Photo by Irene Yi for Berkeley News)

Charles Reichmann didn’t set out to change the name of a building at one of the nation’s top law schools.

But fate, as it so often does, had other plans.

In 2017, Reichmann, a lecturer at Berkeley’s law school and an attorney, made an unexpected discovery in the throes of his research at The Bancroft Library. Scouring troves of historical materials while investigating the debate around Chinese immigration in the 1870s, he came across a speech, revealing a dark side of John Henry Boalt that time had all but forgotten.

There, as clear as day, was a racist speech by Boalt, the historical namesake of Berkeley School of Law’s Boalt Hall. The screed, titled “The Chinese Question,” was delivered by Boalt in 1877 at the Berkeley Club. In it, Boalt calls, in no uncertain terms, for the end of Chinese immigration. Boalt contends that “Two non-assimilating races never yet lived together harmoniously on the same soil, unless one of these races was in a state of servitude to the other.” Boalt goes on to outline the reasons that could prevent assimilation, among them “physical peculiarities,” intellectual and temperamental differences, and “religious fanaticism.”

Addressing the barriers he saw toward assimilation, Boalt writes: “It would certainly seem that in an extreme case of divergence as between extermination and this kind of reconciliation, the former were the more agreeable alternative.”

Boalt proposed to hold a plebiscite (a direct vote of the electorate), which was enacted by the state Legislature, and his speech was included in an official report from the state of California. Boalt was also quoted on the Senate floor, in Washington, D.C. Although it’s hard to say exactly how much influence Boalt’s words had on swaying opinion, Reichmann said, his intent was clear. A few years later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The discovery of the racist speech sent Reichmann down a path — a monthslong exploration of Boalt’s legacy, which included an op-ed and a law review article that raised questions about honoring the past while staying true to our better angels.

That path led, ultimately, to campus officials stripping Boalt’s name from the building, announced today.

We caught up with Reichmann for a chat on the eve of the announcement about his discovery and the importance of learning from the past.

What was your first reaction when you saw this speech? 

I was kind of shocked — a bit bewildered. This is a really racist document, and it’s not just a level-handed, prudential, “we should limit immigration for the good of the commonwealth.” It’s way beyond that. 

I was shocked that the law school at which I teach was associated with this person. It was very uncomfortable for me because Berkeley’s student body is significantly Asian, significantly Chinese, and it just struck me as being out of tune with the university at which I teach and whose values I have sought to uphold since I was an undergraduate here.

You wrote an op-ed and a law review article. What was the goal? Did you want a name change?

It was my preferred outcome. I didn’t ever say that the name should be removed, but I think anyone reading my article would probably have concluded that I thought that. 

There are other possible outcomes in these naming questions. They don’t all have to resort in what we call a denaming. It could be a contextualization, by providing more information about it in public places, by speaking about it.

In a way, this kind of reminds me of the conversation nationally we’ve been having about Confederate statues and the balance between remembering history but also not honoring racists, homophobes, sexists. For you, is it a case-by-case kind of thing?

Yeah, I think it is. We certainly don’t want to forget our history and forget our past. That would be a horrible result. 

What’s often been said about these sorts of things is that these denamings are erasures of history, but that was the furthest from my intent. That was not at all what I wanted to do. 

I spent a few months doing research and writing because I wanted to broadcast the history. I wanted to let people know what had really happened.

Why do you think it’s important for libraries to preserve these kind of historical documents, even if they contain ugly, racist language and beliefs?

Because it’s our past. 

The duties of our libraries are to help us remember what has happened and to give us the source material to understand those things more fully. 

There’s a rich trove of racist materials in the Bancroft, quite a few of which I’ve spent some time with, including some stuff that was very useful to me when writing about the Ku Klux Klan a couple of years ago and its instantiation in Berkeley and Oakland. 

How often do you go to Bancroft?

Not often enough. I would say several times a year. When I’m lucky, maybe once a month, but more typically, somewhat less than that. 

But it’s a place that I have cherished since I was an undergraduate, and I consider it one of the great resources available anywhere in the Western world.

Lastly, what do you hope people take away from this whole experience?

That people should be actively engaged in their history.

It’s not a bad thing to examine whether a name represents our values as an institution. It doesn’t mean that because someone held views that the modern time doesn’t agree with that that presumptively means the name should be removed. Of course not. It doesn’t mean that at all. 

But it’s a complicated balancing test we shouldn’t be afraid to make.

This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.

Editor’s note: This article was updated from its original form.