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USF drops former SF mayor’s name from dorms over racist views

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Phelan Hall at University of San Francisco will now be called the Burl A. Toler Hall. (Cindy Chew/2008 S.F. Examiner)

The former mayor of San Francisco who ran a political campaign with the slogan “Keep California White” nearly a century ago no longer has a building named after him at the University of San Francisco.

Facing protests from students about the racist views of James D. Phelan, college officials renamed Phelan Hall in honor of the first black NFL referee and USF alumnus Burl Toler during a ceremony Tuesday.

The news comes amid movements to rename Confederate memorials in the South as racial tensions heat up nationally under President Donald Trump. In San Francisco, there has been pressure to rebrand public schools named after slaveowners.

Phelan, whose name is ubiquitous on buildings and streets in The City, was the mayor of San Francisco from 1897 and 1902 and a staunch opponent of Japanese immigration.

As a U.S. senator in 1919, Phelan wrote an article titled “The Japanese Evil in California” in which he posited that the Japanese “belong” in Asia because they cannot assimilate into U.S. culture.

“They compose a permanently foreign element, and precipitate a race question far more serious than that in the South,” Phelan wrote, before arguing that Japanese immigrants pose a threat to white businesses in California.

USF President Paul Fitzgerald, who has been outspoken about protecting undocumented immigrants from enhanced deportation efforts under Trump, said in a statement that Phelan “used Xenophobia to gain political office” before helping rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

“We can not scrub Phelan from our history, nor turn away from the complexity of his story,” Fitzgerald said. It’s important that our community recognizes that the temptation to run campaigns built on racism and fear of immigration, which was typical of Phelan’s era, continues to exist today around the world.”

Now called the Burl A. Toler Hall, the student dormitory is located at the center of the campus and was built in 1955.

Toler stood up against racism when he was co-captain of the USF football team in 1951, according to USF. He later became a USF trustee and served on the San Francisco Police Commission before his death in 2009.

“In memorializing Burl Toler, we are recognizing an alumnus whose story helps propel our commitment to social justice and community engagement,” Shaya Kara, USF Associated Students president, said in a statement.

There are still remnants of the Phelan namesake elsewhere San Francisco.

Phelan has a bust at City Hall. The main thoroughfare at City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus is called Phelan Avenue. There’s an 11-story office building near Union Square called the Phelan Building, named after his father.

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