Fort Bragg commission to tackle name change issue, systemic racism
The city of Fort Bragg will keep its name, at least for now.
But recent debate over whether to rebrand the North Coast town at a time of national reckoning with symbols of the Southern Confederacy, a legacy of slavery and centuries of racial and ethnic oppression, has led to serious soul-searching in the Mendocino County community.
The current movement may yet lead to a parting of ways with the town’s namesake, Braxton Bragg. The town traces its roots to a military outpost named for the distinguished veteran of the Mexican-American War, who later became a slaveholder and Confederate States Army general.
Many fear failure to do so now could signal tolerance for bigotry or risk putting the city on the “wrong” side of history.
But the matter is deeply personal for Fort Bragg residents and remains unresolved. Elected leaders in June authorized creation of a new citizen commission to find a path forward, hoping the group also will help address deeper issues of systemic racism through dialog and education in the majority white town of 7,300 people.
“I think there’s a lot of history that we don’t know, and I think we can all benefit,” said Vice Mayor Bernie Norvell, one of two council members assigned to design a framework for the group. “We don’t know what we don’t know. The deep dive can be a good thing.”
It’s become clear during the profoundly divisive debate over the name that many residents, even longtime ones, previously knew little, if anything about the town’s namesake, let alone his role as a defender of slavery. Bragg, who died in 1876, 13 years before the city incorporated, wasn’t known ever to have set foot on the Mendocino Coast.
Still more unexpected for many residents is the bitterness and pain associated with the original fort from which the town grew. The fort, named by a soldier who had served under Bragg 10 years earlier, well before the Civil War, was established in 1857 to subdue the region’s Indigenous tribes. It included a containment camp that was part of a brutal campaign of enslavement, bloodshed and dislocation, with lasting ramifications.
It’s that history that Javier Silva, 44, a member of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, wants people to understand before they take action on a name.
“I think what we’re looking to get out of this is some recognition of the atrocities that happened and why the city name is there in the first place — what purpose was behind it, why there’s a settlement here,” said Silva, who hopes to be selected for the commission.
The work could make for some difficult, but necessary, conversations, said Tara Larson, a white high school English teacher and fifth- or sixth-generation Fort Bragger. She and her mother are still working it out.
“I’m willing to discuss and learn and listen and talk and hear what the community has to say,” said Larson, 49, another commission candidate.
“It’s a much bigger picture and discussion than the fact that Bragg was a Union soldier and became a Confederate soldier. It’s a big conversation. It’s opened people’s eyes,” she said.
Councilwoman Jessica Morsell-Haye, who will lead the effort with the vice mayor, said she hopes the outcome will promote some sense of healing, though what that might look like is unclear.
“I heard a number of people from our local tribe say they needed their voices to be heard,” she said. “This provides an opportunity for that. And I’m hearing from people of color in our community. I’m hearing a lot of pain in terms of feeling these daily effects of bias and bigotry that really need to be brought out into the light and looked it.”
City Council members already have called for a proclamation disavowing any connection with General Bragg, an unpopular, largely failed Civil War commander who nonetheless served as military adviser to southern President Jefferson Davis. The proclamation, agreed to June 22, will be drawn up and voted on July 13.
Many in town think that’s sufficient, especially those born and raised as the sons and daughters of hardworking folks at the edge of the Pacific who never dreamed their town bore the stain of Southern slavery.
Among them are Ryan Bushnell, 35, a youth coach and volunteer firefighter who has lived most of his life in Fort Bragg and feels an allegiance to the city absent any association to the general who shared its name.
Bushnell has circulated an online petition signed by more than 2,000 people so far urging the City Council to refrain from putting the matter on the ballot, telling council members last month, “I’ve been called racist. I’ve been called a dirt bag. And why? Because I’m a white guy that wants to keep the name of this town. It’s not a Braxton Bragg issue to me.”