PD Editorial: Burbank’s place in history and in our town

Luther Burbank may be Santa Rosa's most celebrated resident.

Burbank created hundreds of varieties of fruits, grains and ornamental flowers at his nursery and experimental farm, earning international acclaim and shaping the image of his adopted hometown.

A century later, his name adorns two towns, schools in five states and two local theaters, one of them on the campus of Santa Rosa Junior College.

But there's a dark chapter in Burbank's biography: He participated in efforts to drive Chinese residents out of Santa Rosa and California, as recounted by Julia Modell, an SRJC journalism student, in today's Forum section.

“He leveraged his local influence and heroic stature to villainize an entire community on the basis of ethnic difference,” wrote Modell, who contends that Burbank's name should be removed from the college auditorium as part of an ongoing renovation project.

The question - Is Burbank unfit for a public honor? - is simple.

The answer - as evidenced by robust debates across the country - isn't.

South Carolina lowered the Confederate battle flag at its statehouse in 2015, and numerous other Southern communities have subsequently removed statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders. But not without controversy and, in extreme cases, violence.

Yale University erased the name of John C. Calhoun, a former vice president who staunchly defended slavery, from one of its colleges. Princeton kept President Woodrow Wilson's name on its school of international affairs despite his segregationist views.

Closer to home, Sonoma State University replaced its Cossack mascot because of the association with anti-Semitic pogroms. Fort Bragg, named for a future Confederate officer, resisted calls to change its name, and San Francisco's decision to remove a Civic Center statue that depicts the subjugation of Native Americans is the subject of ongoing appeals.

The common theme is race, an issue that has divided America from its earliest days.

Even the nation's founders struggled with race. Thomas Jefferson drafted the quintessential American maxim - “all men are created equal” - and enslaved more than 100 people. George Washington, the first president, also was a slave owner.

As calls to remove Confederate statues spread, opponents, including President Donald Trump, denigrated it as an exercise in rewriting history that would ultimately lead to the removal of memorials to the likes of Jefferson and Washington.

There's an obvious distinction. Jefferson and Washington aren't honored for being slave owners. Indeed, that's a blemish on their legacy - helping to establish a democratic nation that professes, if it doesn't always attain, the highest ideals. The Confederate leaders committed themselves to white supremacy and tearing apart the country.

Where does Luther Burbank fit into this?

Burbank joined the Anti-Chinese League, just like many civic leaders of his day. Thomas J. Geary, a local congressman, sponsored the 1892 renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law prohibiting immigration from a specific country.

So Burbank, like many historic figures, had flaws. He was a revered horticulturalist and a man of his times - and his times were marked by racist attitudes. Those facts belong on the record, but it's difficult to judge history by contemporary standards - and renaming schools or the Luther Burbank Rose Parade seems to us to single him out for views widely shared by his contemporaries without regard for his genuine accomplishments.

Will students or faculty or someone else answer the call for a new name for SRJC's Burbank Auditorium? We don't know. But Frank Chong, the junior college's Chinese-American president, offered wise words on the subject of racial animus: “I tend to not hold people accountable for things back in the past. I'm more concerned about people who are still alive who feel that way.”

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