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Fort Bragg commission to tackle name change issue, systemic racism

A citizen’s commission will review the town’s Confederate namesake and origins as a military outpost that oppressed Indigenous people.|

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.”

In an interview, he lauded the council for assembling a task force to take input on the matter, however, and said it was appropriate not to rush and to think through the decision.

“If things don’t go my way, and they change the name, then so be it, I made my point,” he said.

Larson and her family share his position, however. Though eager to have discussion about community history and racial justice, they love their town and its people, and feel erasing the name tears away at their and others’ personal experience.

Larson and her husband, Merlyn, have raised four now-adult Black sons that they took under their wing during a 14-year sojourn in Citrus Heights. They now have a Latino foster son.

Merlyn Larson said he feels changing the name would divide the community further when it can least afford it. One of their sons, Davion Johnson, told the council last month he agrees, saying the effort to support social justice should not “displace people’s cultures and the lives they have built inside this city.”

They, like many others, would be content to see the city rededicated to a different “Bragg,” perhaps one of those already suggested, like Union Army Brigadier General and four-term Wisconsin Rep. Edward Stuyvesant Bragg, who died in 1912.

“In doing so, we would show everyone that we do care, we don’t want to associate with racism, and we do want to be on the right side of history in Fort Bragg,” Merlyn Larson said.

Morsell-Haye said rededication “was a little too easy … without really looking at what that local history piece is.”

“By creating the citizen commission, really my goal is to create the space for meaningful dialogue around what healing and equity actually look like for our community, and whether we were to rename or rededicate, there has to be meaningful action that goes into supporting anything that has to do with the name.”

The issue of the city’s name suddenly took on urgency last month, as demonstrators flooded into the streets of cities around the country and even abroad to protest the Memorial Day killing of a Black man named George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

During days and then weeks of sustained public action that marked a turning point in many people’s understanding of systemic racism and white privilege, symbols of the Confederacy across the land became a target, including the small traditional timber and fishing town on the Mendocino Coast, where about 61% of the population is white alone, 32% is Latino, 1% is Black and 4.5% is mixed race, according to the federal census..

The linkage to Braxton Bragg has drawn attention to the town before, however, most recently in 2015, when the California Legislative Black Caucus was among those asking city leaders to dispense with the Fort Bragg name in the interest of racial justice.

The effort was timed with state legislation aimed at removing Confederate flags from public places in the wake of a racially motivated shooting at a Black South Carolina church. Nine people were slain.

This year, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining strength, City Hall again began receiving communications from across the country, driven in part by online maps of remaining Confederate symbols. On the West Coast, the city of Fort Bragg all but stands alone.

In a move that would bring national media attention to his town, Mayor Will Lee brought the matter to the five-member council in June, saying the country had reached “a national inflection point” that made it appropriate to reconsider the city name.

His question to the council was whether the matter belonged on the November ballot, a task that citizens could take on for themselves through voter initiative, though the deadline for this fall had passed already.

The council also has the authority by four-fifths vote to change the name itself.

But scores of emails, letters and calls, and nearly four hours of public testimony June 22 at the first face-to-face City Council meeting since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the degree of community division and complexity of the issue became clear.

What was apparent was that a majority of people on both sides did not want the council to decide.

MendoCoast BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and more than 900 signatories to a petition supporting the group’s position called on the council to form a diverse task force inclusive of Black and Native people affected by the legacies of slavery and local displacement. The group said those most affected by the ugly legacy behind the town’s name should be given the lead in deciding how to change it without the burden of a ballot election when they already are “fighting for racial justice on a chronic and ongoing daily basis.”

“Let’s have these discussions. Let’s figure this out,” Sierra Wooten, a frequent spokesperson for the group, told the council in June. “… Everybody here can heal, but we just have to do the work.”

Cesar Yanez, who was born and raised in Fort Bragg by immigrant parents, said his mother’s lifelong love of reading about local history gave him a passing familiarity with his hometown’s background, both its connection to Braxton Bragg and to the injustices visited upon the land’s Indigenous people. But he said he has never felt anything but welcomed by his diverse array of friends and acquaintances.

Yanez, 48, said he doesn’t have a position on the name issue at this point but hopes to be selected for the new commission because he’s interested in the conversation that lies ahead.

“We should learn together and assess the situation as we go together and hopefully not come into this with a preconceived idea, and, you know, let’s discuss it,” he said “I think that’s exactly what this is for is for discussion.”

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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