Racist Legacy Revisited: Frida Kahlo Could Oust Phelan Avenue

Former mayor James D. Phelan ran for senator in 1920, promising to "Keep California White."

A street sign for Phelan Avenue is shown at City College of San Francisco’s ocean campus. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco is revisiting the history of another explicitly racist influence — this time of former Mayor James Duval Phelan whose name is still honored in street names, libraries and even a city in California.

Supervisor Norman Yee is heading the effort to rename Phelan Avenue at City College of San Francisco. Community members and stakeholders will get a chance to vote on the matter in the next couple weeks, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Counting the ways Phelan —mayor from 1897-1902 and considered one of San Francisco’s founding fathers — was vigorously opposed to Asian immigration is a doozy. Besides using the slogan “Keep California White” when unsuccessfully running for U.S. Senate reelection in 1920, he spoke of “Yellow Peril” and tried to remove Chinese immigrants from present-day Chinatown while rebuilding the city after the 1906 earthquake.

Phelan later lent support to prevent Japanese farmers from owning or leasing land long-term with the California Alien Land Law of 1913, was behind the Japanese Exclusion League of California and lobbied for the Immigration Act of 1924 to ban new immigrants from Japan and East Asia.

He also told the Boston Herald that “California is a white man’s country, and the two races cannot live side by side in peace, and inasmuch as we discovered the country first and occupied it, we propose to hold it against either a peaceful or a war-like invasion.”

A 1920 campaign poster of James D. Phelan

Phelan Avenue at City College of San Francisco is technically named after Phelan’s father, but the family tie was deemed strong enough to rethink the name last spring. The City College board on Thursday voted to rename it “Frida Kahlo Way” after the legendary Mexican artist.

The Phelan Renaming Committee has also come up with renaming it after African American dancer and writer Thelma Johnson Streat; Chinese American historian and activist Him Mark Lai; the Muwekma Ohlone tribe that first settled the region; or just “Freedom.” 

In May, the University of San Francisco renamed Phelan Hall after Burl A. Toler, the first African American official in the National Football League.

Once a final name is decided, Yee will bring it to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Responding to criticism that the name change would be a mess for residents who live on the street, Yee’s legislative aide Jarlene Choy told the Examiner that the office would help them with the paperwork process. Plus, it could take up to a year to finalize the change.

Phelan’s legacy is one of a handful revisited in San Francisco alone. Last Wednesday, the removal of a statue from Pioneer Monument advanced in City Hall. The ‘Early Days’ statue — which depicts a Native American sitting with a mission padre and vaquero standing over him in Civic Center — has been long criticized as demeaning.

The Board of Supervisors also voted last month to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, and voted in November to rename Justin Herman Plaza to Embarcadero Plaza. Herman led the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency that displaced many African Americans in the Western Addition.

Maybe owners of the Phelan Building on 760 Market St. will also revist having the name of a notorious racist pasted in bold lettering for all of downtown to see.

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