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Fort Bragg citizen group unable to reach consensus on name change

Unanimous recommendations from the Fort Bragg Citizen Commission on Renaming

Create city policy to prioritize Land Back to local coastal tribes.

Formalize an official agreement to work with local coastal tribes in recognition of their sovereignty and continued stewardship of the land.

Support the creation of a cultural center to demonstrate, educate and honor the way of life that existed pre-contact and to honor the many cultures that exist today.

Appoint a city council ad hoc to facilitate discussion with schools and local tribes toward presenting a more complete and inclusive history.

Support an outdoor event to encourage the local arts, sciences and culture/economy, showcasing the diverse community.

Confederate General Braxton Bragg never set foot in the North Coast town that bears his name, but his lingering shadow will not soon fade away.

Nor, it seems, will his name.

After wrestling for nearly 1 1/2 years with the painful issues of race, slavery and the mistreatment of local Indigenous people, a citizen commission convened to consider whether the city should shed the southern slaveholder’s name found consensus out of reach.

The group struggled to find cohesion through emotionally fraught terrain but did reach agreement on several recommendations. These were aimed primarily at redressing wrongs to the coast Indian tribes whose lands and people were stolen in times gone by and at ensuring all residents and visitors feel welcomed and included by the Mendocino Coast community.

But there was no agreement on the renaming idea, and a suggested rededication of the town to some other Bragg who lacked the general’s disagreeable legacy failed to find traction over the months the commission met ― so polarizing is the overall subject.

“As a commission, we came to the conclusion that, at this time, because the citizens are so divided, this commission cannot unanimously recommend a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question of changing the name,” Cesar Yanez told the city council Monday night as part of the commission’s concluding presentation.

Fort Bragg CA Citizens Commission Final Presentation.pdf

The 10 remaining members of the commission, which started August 2020 with a roster of 18, voted themselves 6-4 in favor of seeing the city renamed “sometime in the not-too-distant future” before their time together came to an end.

But in an unscientific survey conducted last year, the vast majority of participants opposed such a move.

The survey drew 1,649 responses, with 56% of those who weighed in voting “no,” compared to 32.5% who cast “yes” votes. The remainder were unsure.

Because participation was limited to those who received and read paper water bills from the city or who saw announcements in the local newspaper, in city council emails or on Facebook, commissioners determined the results were not at all reliable and only reflected strong feelings on both sides. The manner in which the survey was conducted also meant people from outside the city may have voted and some people could have voted multiple times, commissioner Christie Olson Day said.

“We did our best, and that’s what we got,” she said.

While commissioners spoke mostly from a preapproved script reflecting agreed-upon statements, the emotional complexity and contention they had experienced was clear from asides and from written statements several submitted later.

Those who have voiced support of keeping the Fort Bragg name, as some commissioners and Councilman Lindy Peters did Monday night, said Bragg’s happenstance connection with their singular coastal town had nothing to do with racist sympathies.

“This town is not honoring this man. Never have,” said Peters, the only council member to speak at any length at what had been a time set aside for the commission’s report. “We were named in 1857. It’s now 2020.”

Gabriel Quinn Maroney, a commissioner who had formerly advocated for adoption of a new name, said he no longer believed the council should consider taking such action, given widespread opposition.

“When this community is ready to change the name, if ever, then that’s when it should happen, I think,” he said.

Others, like Commissioner Marshall Carr Jr., the only Black commissioner after the death of one other Black member last year, said consensus on the renaming issue had always been unlikely, given the diversity of viewpoints sought for the commission in the first place.

But, he said, “I firmly believe it should be changed. It will give this town a chance to rebrand around inclusivity and acknowledgment of those who were here before and in turn drive more tourism toward our tourist driven economy.”

The volunteer commission was appointed in the summer of 2020 amid a nationwide reckoning with racism and the country’s history of slavery in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, in the custody of three white Minneapolis police officers.

It resulted in part with a campaign to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces and jettison all symbols glorifying the defense of Black slavery. One outcome was a vote by Congress to rename 10 Army bases named for Confederate military leaders, including Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Its namesake is Braxton Bragg.

Many in the predominantly white Mendocino Coast city of about 7,200 similarly think they should part ways with the general, a U.S. Army officer who distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War and later came out of retirement on his Louisiana sugar plantation to serve as a commander in the Confederate Army and adviser to southern President Jefferson Davis.

Unanimous recommendations from the Fort Bragg Citizen Commission on Renaming

Create city policy to prioritize Land Back to local coastal tribes.

Formalize an official agreement to work with local coastal tribes in recognition of their sovereignty and continued stewardship of the land.

Support the creation of a cultural center to demonstrate, educate and honor the way of life that existed pre-contact and to honor the many cultures that exist today.

Appoint a city council ad hoc to facilitate discussion with schools and local tribes toward presenting a more complete and inclusive history.

Support an outdoor event to encourage the local arts, sciences and culture/economy, showcasing the diverse community.

“This problem will not go away,” Day told the council and wrote in a personal statement submitted later. “ … This will be an issue as long as we choose to keep the name. There are many helpful actions you can take, but waiting it out is not among them.”

That an isolated fishing and logging town on the North Coast should end up sharing his name was almost accidental. An officer who had served under Bragg well before the Civil War chose Bragg’s name for an Army outpost established at the mouth of the Noyo River in 1857. Soldiers assigned there were tasked with subduing rebellious tribes and ran a containment camp that was part of an ugly legacy of enslavement and bloodshed in the region.

The history, said commissioner Andy Wellspring, a high school history teacher, “is grim.”

“Amends need to be made by this town,” he said.

But Pomo descendants don’t automatically agree that renaming the city should be part of that.

Commission member Lucy Stanley, a local elder in the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, said it was the community of Fort Bragg that hid and protected her great-great-grandparents after they escaped from Round Valley in inland Mendocino County, where members of different tribes had been relocated.

Like Councilwoman Marcia Rafanan said after her, many tribal members and other locals grew up proud of their community without knowing who Braxton Bragg was.

Commission member Nicki Caito-Urbani said the 60-hours-plus of meetings were draining and difficult, and led to some sleepless nights.

But with people on both sides of the question dug in, she said in an interview, the most feasible option might be rededication.

“We only pay homage to Braxton Bragg if it’s actually named after him,” she said.

There remained so many unanswered questions and concerns about renaming ― things like the cost of relabeling city property and impacts to all the businesses with “Fort Bragg” in the name ― that a good deal more consideration would be needed, even if public opinion started to swing that way.

“If it doesn’t come from a united front, I just feel that the divide it would cause in the community is horrific,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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