Modell: New Burbank, new name?
Editor's note: A previous version of this commentary incorrectly stated that Luther Burbank was the secretary of the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese League. He was only a member.
Burbank Auditorium, home to Santa Rosa Junior College's theater arts program, is under renovation during the school's centennial year; this is an opportunity not only for architectural enhancements but to right a historical wrong, by renaming the building altogether.
The auditorium is one of many Sonoma County buildings named after Luther Burbank. Locally and nationally, he is considered an agricultural hero. Schools across the country take his name. Frida Kahlo even painted him in 1931.
Burbank is famous for creating the Shasta Daisy, Burbank Potato, Santa Rosa Plum and hundreds of other plant varieties. He is one of the most revered plant breeders, and no one is arguing to rename the auditorium because Burbank created the disgusting white blackberry.
The auditorium needs a new name because Burbank probably thought white blackberries superior for the color of their skin.
Luther Burbank participated in Santa Rosa's Chinese removal project. He leveraged his local influence and heroic stature to villainize an entire community on the basis of ethnic difference. His name should not be on campus.
This is an opportune moment for renaming. The large-scale renovations to Burbank include the addition of two new classrooms and the remodeling of the 400-seat main auditorium. Popping off those name placards is relatively simple in terms of construction.
Currently, placards are popping off around the country. Activists are pulling down Confederate flags, toppling monuments and painting over racist murals. Whole schools, once commemorating Confederate leaders, now have new names.
But do Burbank's wrongs warrant the removal of his name from the auditorium? He didn't lead a Confederate army, and he didn't enslave people. But in the context of “liberal” Sonoma County, where people point to the lack of diversity but fail to accept history of racism, Burbank is a perfect idol to fall.
We could also start by questioning why his name fronts numerous local buildings in the first place. Burbank wasn't a Santa Rosa native. He came to the North Bay from Massachusetts in 1875, bought massive amounts of originally Pomo or Miwok land and started a plant-breeding empire.
In a recent conversation, Santa Rosa historian Gaye LeBaron referred to Burbank as “a gardener who got lucky.”
But how did Burbank get lucky? He didn't invent the concept of selective plant breeding. Communities around the world have selectively bred plants for nearly 10,000 years. Burbank just had the power and self-serving nature to take ownership over species and shamelessly promote them.
More pertinently, Burbank had the gall to lead Santa Rosa's Chinese removal project. It's true that almost all whites in Sonoma County were anti-Chinese at the end of the 19th century.
“Everyone except for a few ministers and women's groups were simply bent on getting the Chinese out of town,” said LeBaron.
But Burbank was a plants man whose experiments changed the face of agriculture. He likely knew then what most agriculturalists know now – even if they'd never admit it: employing underpaid immigrant labor is the only way our nation's food system functions.
In the mid-1800s, thousands of Chinese immigrated to California to work in mines and lay railroads. By the 1870s, there were Chinatowns in major cities along the Pacific coast.
Lebaron's book “Santa Rosa: A 19 Century Town” said even relatively small communities, like Healdsburg, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, had Chinatowns.
In the 1870s, Santa Rosa's Chinatown took up a couple blocks along the creek in between where D Street and the Roxy Theater now sit.
Chinese immigrants in Sonoma County played vital roles, especially when jobs became dangerous. They laid railroads. They worked agricultural fields. They dug caves by hand for Buena Vista, Sonoma County's oldest commercial winery. They even established Chinese businesses, including the first local laundries, which proved very popular in Santa Rosa.
However, in 1880 a recession intensified making money and jobs tight. Desperation and xenophobia led many whites to point to the Chinese as the cause of the economic turmoil.
A group of Santa Rosans formed the Anti-Chinese League in 1886 with the explicit goal of removing all Chinese residents from Santa Rosa. Burbank was a member this committee.
The biased and bigoted local newspapers, the Santa Rosa Republican and the Sonoma Democrat, ran pieces that villainized the Chinese with horror stories and propaganda blaming them for taking the white man's job.