Frederick Douglass Plaza on Pierce Street honors the former slave whose 1845 autobiography and leadership helped propel the abolition movement. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Benson)

Reconsidering our heroes and history

Restoring Frederick Douglass Plaza would show that we have learned from history

By Heidi Benson

On Pierce Street in San Francisco, two parks five blocks apart are named for American heroes. One is well taken care of; the other, neglected.

Lately, the city has made enlightened historical corrections. Julius Kahn Playground no longer honors the California congressman who vehemently argued for Asian exclusion. And Justin Herman Plaza has been renamed in acknowledgment of Herman’s role in displacing minority communities as director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1959-71.

But renaming parks and putting statues in storage are not the only solutions. Some San Francisco monuments just need a little love. Frederick Douglass Plaza, on Pierce Street between Oak and Fell, honors the former slave whose 1845 autobiography and leadership propelled abolition. The plaza, bookended by blunt red-brick gates, sits one block south of the high school named for 19th-century African American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who gave the eulogy for Frederick Douglass at a memorial ceremony in California.

The plaza’s original 1968 plan shows the gates crowned by planter boxes of flowers. That design changed over time, and the metal spikes that top it today are a painful sight in an age of mass incarceration. The nation just marked the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. Wouldn’t a more celebratory design better serve the purpose of honoring Douglass? A renovation and rededication ceremony would bring welcome attention to a historic neighborhood.

Five blocks to the south, Duboce Park — the well-groomed and much used centerpiece of the Duboce Triangle neighborhood — is named for Lt. Col. Victor Duboce, who returned from the Spanish-American War to a hero’s welcome and a seat on the Board of Supervisors.

The park was dedicated in 1900, one of many monuments built as the city was expanding and feeling its wealth. At the time, Americans believed that by helping to liberate the Philippines, we had joined another war of independence. Today, our understanding of the conflict is more nuanced. The monuments remind us of a wrong turn taken.

American forces had gone to the Philippines in 1898. The Treaty of Paris formally ended Spanish colonial rule in the Pacific that year; but before the treaty was ratified, the U.S. annexed the Philippines. American “liberators” were now an occupying force.

After the treaty, Lt. Col. Duboce volunteered to stay on with U.S. forces in the Philippines. He gained fame by leading a rout of freedom fighters in the town of Paco, near Manila. “Brave Charge of Duboce at Paco Church – Leaving the Ground Strewn with Filipinos,” shouted the front page of the Feb. 7, 1899, edition of The San Francisco Call.

American troops “cleared and burned” most of the town. Duboce and his California Volunteers then cornered the Filipino troops, their recent allies, inside the church. The Call painted the scene: “In the face of a terrific fusillade Colonel Duboce and a few volunteers dashed into the church, scattered coal oil inside of it, set fire to the oil and retired.” Today, this reads as anything but a heroic act. As Mark Twain, an ardent anti-imperialist, wrote at the time: “I have read carefully the Treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.”

Still, the monuments went up. Mayor James Phelan dedicated the park to Duboce, who died of malaria contracted overseas; he was buried in the National Cemetery in the Presidio. The Philippine-American war continued for another three years. President Theodore Roosevelt declared amnesty, finalizing annexation in 1902. The island nation would not be granted full independence until 1946.

Our recent crisis allows us time to think. Can we learn from history? Can we reconsider our choices and our treatment of American heroes?

A dual reckoning is possible on Pierce Street. A plaque explaining the historical significance of Lt. Col. Duboce would bring the park into the 21st century. And a more apt, more beautiful monument would properly honor Frederick Douglass, an American hero for the ages.

Heidi Benson is an independent journalist and a former editor and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner.

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