When the United States elected its first black president in 2008, some pundits boldly declared we had entered a period of “post-racism” in America. A legacy of 400 years of human slavery, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow cross burnings, lynchings, and institutionalized segregation had finally been put to rest. Fast forward to last month’s events in Charlottesville. America got another brutal reminder that dark currents of racism continue to run deep in our country. And once again, we are forced to decide on what actions must be taken to reconcile our past with our present, and how we ensure the concepts of equality and freedom are taught to future generations.
As Brea celebrates its centennial year, the light of history came to shine on the William E. Fanning elementary school, named for a prominent local figure from the 1920’s. Fanning made his name as a war veteran, educator and civic leader. Based on archival records at the Anaheim Heritage Library, Mr. Fanning is also believed to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Upon further research, it is an undisputed fact that the Klan was a major presence in Northern Orange County in the early part of the last century, with Anaheim, Brea, Fullerton, and La Habra being hotbeds for Klan activity and support.
This sordid past collided with modern social media in predictable ways when these findings were shared on Next Door Brea, a popular online community forum more commonly used for local restaurant recommendations or help with finding contractors for kitchen remodels. The question was posed, should there be an effort to change the name of the school? Posted comments ranged from outrage and calls for renaming, to accusations of “fake news” and charges of overboard political correctness. Some spoke of seizing upon an ideal “teachable moment” for the students, a history lesson with immediate relevance. Others warned of exorbitant expenses for a renaming effort, and suggesting respectfulness for the honorable William E. Fanning. Heated exchanges ensued.
How nice would it be to have Mr. Fanning around to weigh in on these accusations? In his defense, he was almost certainly a man of his place and times, behaving in a way that raised few eyebrows amongst his contemporaries. But we are not Mr. Fanning’s contemporaries. We are a diverse community, and it’s no stretch to say that many Breans have experienced the sting of religious intolerance, bigotry, sexism, and racism firsthand.
We are living in a place and time where the students at Fanning Elementary, and indeed all young Americans, can use a history lesson sorely overlooked by today’s curriculum: racism and bigotry were once acceptable in America, but no more. The same principles that are bringing down Confederate monuments throughout the South are in play right here in Orange County. This country’s ideals of equality, applicable to all of our citizens regardless of religion, color, gender or ethnicity, will always be the bedrock of our identity as Americans. Those who oppose these ideals are not deserving of monuments or having their names on educational institutions. And as such, Fanning Elementary students can have a front row seat to the conversation on why it is necessary for their school to be renamed.
Marc Prushan has been a Brea resident since 1991.
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