In Julia Modell’s Sunday commentary (“New Burbank need a new name?”), she described Luther Burbank as a leader in Chinese removal activities in Santa Rosa in the 1880s. Historical documents and interviews don’t support this assertion.
There are contradictory reports of involvement by Burbank in efforts to eradicate Chinese residents. We do know, and local historian Gaye LeBaron confirmed in a recent conversation based on her research and remaining records, that Burbank was not a leader in the anti-Chinese movement.
Modell asserts that Burbank was a “racist” who employed “xenophobia” and “leveraged his local influence and heroic stature to villainize an entire community on the basis of ethnic difference.” The truth is that Burbank was just starting his business in the 1880s and didn’t have “heroic stature” to leverage.
Throughout his time in Santa Rosa, Burbank invited hundreds of foreign visitors into his home and workspace. At least eight people with addresses in China signed his guest book. The largest number of foreign visitors, more than 100, was from Japan. Nearly as many were from India.
Many of the Japanese guests visited Burbank at the behest of Kanaye Nagasawa, the Japanese immigrant turned winemaker at Fountaingrove Winery. Burbank had a long friendship and business relationship with Nagasawa. An 1882 Burbank sales book records a sale of trees to Nagasawa, and Burbank describes dining at Nagasawa’s home in 1921.
Burbank also had at least one plant-breeding student from Japan. This student, Nobumi Hasegawa, later wrote to Burbank with “heartfelt gratitude” and wired money from New York for a garland to be displayed at Burbank’s funeral.
Opening his home and offering friendship and mentorship are indicators that Burbank demonstrated the opposite of xenophobia to foreign-born residents and visitors.
In Burbank’s short book, “The Training of the Human Plant,” he applied plant breeding experience to humans with an emphasis on the importance of “love” in human development. Unlike the social Darwinists and most eugenicists of the period, Burbank discussed the benefits of “hybridization” (or interracial marriage) of people from different areas of the world.
Modell suggests renaming Burbank Auditorium at Santa Rosa Junior College because Burbank’s “name should not be on campus.” SRJC began on land intended to become a park honoring Burbank’s work. The park-like area we enjoy today in front of the auditorium was, according to SRJC’s first president, Floyd Bailey, to be preserved as a reminder of this origin.
Burbank wasn’t flawless, but he was also not monstrous. We don’t have clear evidence of the extent, if any at all, of his involvement in the crimes committed against Chinese residents in the 1880s. Throughout much of his lifetime, and today, nearly 100 years after his death, Burbank’s achievements in plant breeding bring people from around the world to be welcomed in Santa Rosa.
Rebecca Baker is a volunteer historian, archivist and docent at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens. She lives in Santa Rosa.
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