Presidio Playground Name Latest On Racist Legacy Chopping Block

The namesake of Julius Kahn Playground pushed through an extension to the Chinese Exclusion Act while representing San Francisco in Congress.

A Presidio playground named after former San Francisco congressman with a history of anti-Asian immigration advocacy is the latest to face the racist legacy chopping block.

A coalition of 37 community groups on Wednesday successfully urged the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee to push forward a non-binding resolution to strip the name from Julius Kahn Playground. The full Board of Supervisors will vote on June 5 whether to send the recommendation to the Recreation and Parks Commission, which is expected to respond by the end of the month.

Supervisor Norman Yee introduced the resolution in April, echoing the need for a community playground to be inclusive and reflective of the city. The 92-year-old playground sits on the southeastern edge of the Presidio and Presidio Heights.

“It is not only the right thing to do, it is actually the right time to be doing it,” says Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who joined the coalition’s hearing with Yee and Supervisor Jane Kim before the item was called. “A name is very important.”

The name in question belongs to Khan, who represented San Francisco in the House of Representatives both from 1899 to 1903 and 1905. He introduced legislation to make permanent the Chinese Exclusion Act and was notorious for anti-Chinese rhetoric.

According to the resolution, Kahn read to Congress that Chinese people are “morally the most debased people on the face of the earth” and that “gambling and sensuality are the great vices of the Chinese…while murderous assaults, robberies, kidnapping, and blackmail are a frequent occurrence.”

Kahn also called people with Chinese and Filipino mixed origins “a much more dangerous element” and was supportive of preventing Japanese immigrants from naturalizing.

Cynthia Choi, Co-Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, made the connection to the rhetoric used by the current federal government and wants to preserve the history of people like Kahn in schools or museums — but not in a public park. 

“The removal of [Kahn’s] name should be viewed as part of a movement for truth and reconciliation,” Choi says. “It’s an opportunity to understand its lessons and its applications today.”

Public commenters echoed the sentiment that it’s not about erasing history, but discontinuing to honor people who have inflicted generational harm. One resident, Lillian Sing, said how victimized she was to learn about the man after her son’s graduation was held there.

“It’s very symbolic that we do it this month,” Yee says, referring to May’s federal designation as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. “This is a real learning moment for all of us.”

Yee has led a wave of reexamining the naming of public spaces after leaders with explicit and exclusionary legacies. Most recently, a committee voted to rename nearby Phelan Avenue to Frida Kahlo Way after the anti-Asian immigrant policies of the original namesake, former mayor James D. Phelan resurfaced.

In September, the Recreation and Parks Commission also voted to remove from Justin Herman Plaza the name of the 1960s leader of urban renewal that proved destructive to the city’s African American population.

The San Francisco Board of Education hopped fully on board the movement Tuesday night with a resolution to establish a formal process to rename any public schools. Dozens of schools have been renamed, like Sir Francis Drake Elementary School to Malcolm X Academy, within the past three decades, the district says Wednesday.

“We have to continue to reconcile a history of people who have committed great crimes or didn’t believe in the full humanity of their fellows,” says board Vice President Stevon Cook. ” I believe this is long overdue.”

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