San Francisco Board Attacks New York History

Being an abolitionist is not enough.

Neither is being a president of the United States, including the man who led America to victory in World War II.

William Cullen Bryant

That was nearly the case of such New York legends as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, plus Roslyn’s own William Cullen Bryant in the San Francisco school board controversy, one that has garnered enormous nationwide coverage.

In January 2021, that school board made the news when it renamed no less than 44 public schools in the district. That included now-familiar targets: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Francis Key Scott, Paul Revere, James A. Garfield, Daniel Webster, Robert Louis Stevenson, plus the once-popular California author John Muir, Junipero Serra, a Spanish priest who founded missions across California and the state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein. Also temporarily renamed was a Roosevelt Middle School.

“[No] one knew whether it was named after Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” wrote the journalist Byron York. “If the targeted president was in fact Theodore Roosevelt, the San Francisco board scored a hat trick of sorts—canceling all four U.S. presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore.”

Bryant Elementary School, safe for now

The 2021 vote among school board members was 6-1 in favor of the wholesale renaming.
When a school named for Abraham Lincoln was also targeted, the board clearly went too far. That change along with a plan to eliminate testing for acceptance at an elite public school, one named for James Russell Lowell, sent San Francisco parents into action. Three school board members were subject of a recall vote that proved to be overwhelmingly successful.

Buried in all this was that little Roslyn was also targeted. Not the name of the village, but its most famous literary figure. A public school for William Cullen Bryant too, was renamed in the January 2021 purge.

The Roslyn News asked local officials to comment on the culture war against the unsuspecting Bryant.

“It is a shame the people in San Francisco do not appreciate Bryant’s positive contributions to American history,” said Tom Powell, vice president of Friends of Cedarmere. “Bryant had many accomplishments in his lifetime.  He was America’s first poet of renown, and its most famous poet for many years.  He was largely responsible for the movement to create Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He was the muse, through his poetry and friendship, of the artists, including Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, who created America’s first school of painting, the Hudson River School. His love of nature as expressed in his poems and through his other writings, was one of the early influences in the birth of the conservation and environmental movements in America.  He was also known for his support for the right to unionize and frequently supported the rights of immigrants.”

Why Bryant? The man used his platform as editor of The New York Evening Post to make a name for himself as a leading abolitionist. Bryant was so prominent that he was chosen by New York Republicans to introduce the generally unknown Abraham Lincoln to an audience at Manhattan’s Cooper Union Hall. The Feb. 27, 1860 speech launched Lincoln’s ultimately successful presidential run that year. Secession, Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, a Union victory in the Civil War—not to mention Lincoln’s tragic end—lay ahead. It all began at Cooper Union. And William Cullen Bryant was there.

The name change for Bryant’s San Francisco institution did not receive much publicity. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts are household words. In comparison, Bryant is forgotten. Indeed, his books of poetry are out of print and he no longer has much standing in the American canon. Bryant was more than a poet, as his newspaper career attests. With Cedarmere, the Bryant Viaduct, Bryant Park in Manhattan and Bryant High School in Long Island City, the man isn’t forgotten in Roslyn or the New York City area. You can be sure that San Francisco school board members have never read Bryant’s poetry and his Lincoln introductory speech. Such members probably aren’t even aware of that once-famous address.

Meanwhile, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt continue to take a beating. In recent months, a statue of Jefferson was removed from New York City Council members and an equestrian statue of Roosevelt, located in front of the Museum of Natural History, was removed and relocated to little Medora, ND. Unlike San Francisco parents, we must add that New Yorkers did not fight back against those removals.

Joe Scotchie
Joe Scotchie is the editor of both The Roslyn News and New Hyde Park Illustrated News. In 2009, he won a New York State Press Association award for a sports feature. Joseph Scotchie’s past publications include biographies of Thomas Wolfe and Richard Weaver and a comprehensive history of the city of Asheville, North Carolina.

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