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May 09, 2017


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Boalt Hall, as a law school, was renamed to "UC Berkeley School of Law" in 2007. So, too late to propose that renaming.

The law school building known as "Boalt Hall" built with funds donated by Elizabeth Jocelyn Boalt? Although she did honor of her late husband, John, a prominent San Francisco attorney, so what? Boalt was her name, and the gift was hers.

Nice try to foist misbegotten political correctness on this non-issue, though.

William Benemann

As the Archivist for the School of Law at Berkeley and the resident expert on the school’s history, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is: Who was Boalt? I need to explain who John Henry Boalt was because he has been completely forgotten. Over the years I have been able to assemble quite a bit of information about the man, including — yes — his anti-Chinese stance. But that has never really bothered me because in my research I also came to understand who the “Boalt” of Boalt Hall really was.

John Boalt died in 1901. In 1906 his widow, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt, offered to pay the entire sum of $100,000 needed to build a home for the Dept. of Jurisprudence (soon to become the School of Jurisprudence, and in 1951 the School of Law). Neither of the Boalts had any connection with Cal, but Mrs. Boalt’s personal attorney, Charles Stetson Wheeler, was an Old Blue who knew that the law program was about to launch a major capital campaign. Mrs. Boalt was looking for ways to commemorate the man she had loved and lost, and a new law building on the Berkeley campus seemed like a good fit.

Elizabeth Boalt soon became much, much more than a Major Donor. She suffered a series of personal losses. After her husband died, she lost her only child, Alice Boalt Tevis, to complications following childbirth. At the age of ten that child, named Alice Boalt Tevis after her mother, died of Bright’s Disease. In relatively quick succession Elizabeth Boalt lost her husband, her only child, and her only grandchild. She herself was from Massachusetts and had no family on the West Coast, so the students, faculty and staff of Boalt Hall stepped in and embraced her. She became the much beloved matriarch of the school. At the time that she died, we were her family. Her eulogy was given by UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, and her pall bearers were the Dean of the School of Jurisprudence, William Carey Jones, and five law students. That’s how much she meant to us.

No one in the early years of the law school knew much about John Henry Boalt. He had never been around and he was long dead. Everyone knew Elizabeth Boalt. She was the true Boalt of Boalt Hall.

To change the name of Boalt Hall would be a slap in the face of a woman once highly respected in this school. And why should we even think of doing such a thing? Because of a belief her now-forgotten husband once held? I see nothing to be gained by digging up John Henry Boalt’s corpse in order to spit on it. I see a lot to be lost in turning our collective backs on a woman who was so important to our history.

I have no wish to defend John Boalt’s absolutely deplorable racial views, but I do have a deeply-held belief of my own: that we are all better than the worst thing we have ever done. Let John Boalt rest in peace. And let’s instead celebrate the memory of a woman who loved him, and loved us. She deserves to be treated better than this.

William Benemann
Archivist Emeritus
School of Law
University of California, Berkeley


How about renaming it Elizabeth Boalt Hall?



Well stated! This is about attention seeking via an ostensibly politically correct cause. In this instance, it is a misplaced and totally unjustified attack.


"No one in the early years of the law school knew much about John Henry Boalt. He had never been around and he was long dead. Everyone knew Elizabeth Boalt. She was the true Boalt of Boalt Hall."

Thanks Mr. Benemann for the great background perspective and context. Perhaps you should have your comment here printed up into several hundred flyers and tape them in the halls around Mr. Reichman's office? (Assuming he has one at Boalt Hall; as a lecturer though perhaps not.)

In general I'm not a fan of knee-jerk renaming as a way to whitewash history; and in particular here you provide what seems a solid argument against.


In addition to the very useful remarks by William Benemann above, I want to question this sentence:

"Boalt's racial theories were identical to John C. Calhoun's"

That seems pretty unlikely to me. Anti-Chinese racism was a pretty bad thing in the West in the relevant time period, and could be pretty vicious. But, I find it unlikely that Boalt thought that it would be just fine for Chinese people to be captured, forced into servitude, beaten, even to death, for any reason the owner wanted, subjected to rape and destruction of families as a routine matter, and so on. All of those things were core aspects of the racial views supported by Calhoun. We should oppose racism and white supremacy in all cases, of course, but that's compatible with making distinctions and noting that there were especially wicked elements of the system that Calhoun supported and stood for, making him especially inappropriate for any sort of honor.

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