The Cambridge School Committee voted unanimously last night to strip the name of famous 19th century Harvard professor Louis Agassiz—a Darwin-refuter and, many residents charged, a “bigot”—from the local Agassiz elementary school.
The school will be renamed in honor of Maria L. Baldwin, the first black principal in a mixed-race school in all of New England, and an educator who led the Agassiz school for 33 years beginning in 1889.
Several school committee members said they favored the change in order to commemorate Baldwin, not to dishonor Agassiz.
“I don’t think we were taking someone else’s name off so much as changing the name,” said Cambridge Mayor Michael A. Sullivan.
The remnants of a packed crowd, many of whom spoke in favor of the name change, stood and cheered after the vote, which capped an evening of sometimes heated testimony about the meaning of a name to a school.
Ninth-grader Nathaniel Vogel last year initiated the motion to change the school’s name after reading the writing on Louis Agassiz by Agassiz Professor of Zoology Stephen Jay Gould, who died Monday of cancer. Vogel testified that the elementary school’s diverse student body did not reflect the thinking of the 19th century scientist.
“Agassiz’s legacy in education shows one of hate, represented by his attempts to keep Jewish and Irish people out of Harvard at all costs,” Vogel said yesterday. “He might find Agassiz’s diversity detestable.”
In contrast, Vogel said, the Baldwin name would reflect the school as it is today.
“Let’s have a name that lives up to the school,” he said.
Yesterday, one day after Gould’s death, several speakers invoked Gould’s name to make their points for or against removing Agassiz’s name from the school. Gould was Harvard’s most famed evolutionary biologist, known for bringing science to the masses through his prolific writings and for stirring controversy with his theories and his outspoken style.
Director of the Harvard Foundation for Race and Intercultural Relations S. Allen Counter, who co-taught “Biological Determinism” with Gould in 1975, said Gould would have supported the name change.
“I only wish that my colleague Stephen Jay Gould were here,” he said. “If Steve were here tonight, he would probably say to us that we have an opportunity to do something that is very fair.”
Counter added that Baldwin was worthy of commemoration in the school’s name “because she was a great Cambridge educator,” and refuted the argument some put forward that Agassiz’s racist thinking was in keeping with his times.
“Would we want to keep a name like Goebbels on a school because he was ‘a man of his time?,” Counter asked, referring to the Nazi propaganda minister.
But Cambridge resident Steven J. Weissburg presented the school committee with copies of a letter purportedly from Gould, in which the scientist advocated the name “Baldwin-Agassiz” for the school.
“I would be extremely unhappy to see Agassiz’s name dropped, especially based on a mis-reading of my own essays about him and his racial views,” the letter said to be from Gould read. “Agassiz’s racial views were pretty damned awful, but if we start instituting pogroms about the past, when will it stop?”
Agassiz resident Fred Meyer also stood in favor of compromise, suggesting that either a nearby park be renamed for Agassiz or Baldwin or that the school adopt a hyphenated name.
Meyer contended that because naming records for the school do not exist, the elementary school could have been named for Louis Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a founder of Radcliffe and a local educator.
Though many institutions in Cambridge and Harvard also bear the Agassiz name, neither Mayor Sullivan nor Counter had heard of any motion to further expunge Agassiz’s name.
—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at email@example.com.