Forkner Legacy Questioned as Tatarian Family Rejects FUSD Naming Offer
The latest chapter in Fresno Unified’s highly politicized and somewhat chaotic efforts to honor prominent people by naming pieces of real estate after them took a new turn Wednesday night when the School Board voted not to name one of the buildings on the new campus at Ventura Avenue and 10th Street after Fresno native and famed newsman H. Roger Tatarian.
Tatarian’s grandson James sent a letter to the trustees asking them to withdraw the proposal to name a building on the campus after him, calling it a “consolation prize.”
But the board moved forward with honoring longtime and beloved Fresno Unified administrator Dolphas Trotter, whose name will go on the academic and administration center on the Francine and Murray Farber Educational Campus. The trustees could vote on a construction contract this fall for the campus, which will become home to the district’s alternative education programs.
The board also voted to name an early childhood education building after Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers. That building is unfunded and not scheduled for construction at this time, however.
At the May 19 board meeting when the trustees voted to name the new campus for district benefactors Francine and Murray Farber, Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas had included a secondary motion that the board also consider at Wednesday’s meeting naming specific buildings on the campus for Tatarian, Trotter, and Huerta. Tatarian had received overwhelming community support, with 925 nominations, compared to 120 for Trotter, 88 for the Farbers, 68 for another longtime and beloved administrator, Holland Locker, and a few dozen for Huerta. Tatarian died in 1995, Trotter in 2009, and Locker in 2019.
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Fresno’s Armenian community lobbied to have the new southeast Fresno campus named for Tatarian, who grew up near the site and whose impact as editor in chief of United Press International was worldwide. They noted that there are no Fresno schools named for an Armenian, even though Armenians have a long history in the city and represent a sizable portion of the city’s population.
Former Trustee Michelle Asadoorian read the letter from James Tatarian, who lives out of the area. He thanked the School Board for considering his grandfather for the naming honor.
On behalf of himself and his siblings, Tatarian said, “I am writing to request that you not name a building at the new campus after my grandfather. We would consider this a consolation prize that is not suitable for a man of his accomplishments and stature. He deserves a school to be named after him, not a mere building. The fact that students in this building would not be taught the subjects he was most passionate about — writing, journalism, international relations — only strengthens our opinion.”
Replace Forkner’s Name with Tatarian’s
Asadoorian’s brother, Valley writer Mark Arax, suggested that the trustees consider putting Tatarian’s name on an existing elementary school — Forkner Elementary.
Arax said Jessie Clayton Forkner, one of Fresno’s earliest home developers, was an “unabashed white supremacist” who included restrictive covenants in his property sales that banned Armenians and other people of color from purchasing property.
He quoted exclusions in the legal documents for the sale in 1939 of a property at First Street and Normal Avenue that forbid the use or occupancy of the property by “Asiatics, Mongolians, Hindus, Negroes, Armenians or any natives or descendants of the Turkish Empire.” The purchaser agreed “not to lease, sell or convey … the whole or any portion of said property to any Armenian or to any descendant of an Armenian or to any lineal descendant of an Armenian, save and except those employed as servants by the residents.”
Ironically, when Forkner was looking in the 1920s to buy fig trees for Fig Garden — his new “suburban Fresno” development that Forkner promoted as having rigid sales restrictions that would fully protect homeowners “from resale to undesirables” — he turned to Henry Markarian, an Armenian known as the “Fig King,” Arax said.
“In other words, our fig trees were allowed into Fig Garden but our flesh and blood was not,” he said.
The exclusions remained in effect until 1960, about 20 years before the School Board named the district’s new elementary on Valentine Avenue after Forkner, Arax said.
“In solidarity with the people of color excluded alongside us, we are asking you — trustees of the School Board, occupiers of that sorry history — wipe the stain of J.C. Forkner off the paper and stucco of Fresno Unified,” he said as applause erupted in the audience at Wednesday’s meeting. “As a matter of reckoning and reconciliation, we ask that you finally name a school after an Armenian. And where better that school than where an Armenian’s fig trees were planted but an Armenian was forbidden to live? We ask that you rename J.C. Forkner the H. Roger Tatarian Elementary School.”
The Politics of School Names
Naming schools or other public buildings has become a flashpoint across America, and the murder of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer has intensified efforts to examine the nation’s history of racism and whether people now identified as racists should be honored.
The San Francisco School Board was heavily criticized earlier this year by focusing its attention on renaming schools including some whose namesakes — founders of the nation who enslaved people — instead of focusing on reopening the schools to instruction. The School Board later rescinded the renaming decision after a public outcry erupted.
The Duval County School Board in Jacksonville, Florida voted on June 1 to rename Robert E. Lee Senior High, the city’s second-oldest high school, as Riverside High School, taking on the neighborhood’s name. Lee headed the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Seven years earlier the School Board voted to change the name of Forrest High School to Westside High after decades of controversy and calls to rename the school. The school’s former namesake, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was a Confederate Army general who later became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Sometimes namings are not so politically contentious and are sparked by a community lobbying effort. A groundswell of support for former Central High football coach Justin Garza, who lost his fight with cancer in 2017, convinced the Central Unified School last year to name the new high school at Grantland and Ashlan avenues for Garza, although the vote was split 4-3. The high school will open to students in August.
A last-minute campaign by supporters of poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera convinced the Fresno Unified School Board in 2018 to name the new southeast Fresno elementary school for him.
But overwhelming community support for Tatarian, as evidenced in a nomination survey conducted by the district that reaped more than 900 nominations for Tatarian but only 88 for the Farbers, did not convince the School Board this time around, Trustee Terry Slatic noted.
“Even though the previous time the School Board did this with the Herrera School where those community nominations were taken as gospel votes, on tablets down from the mount, this 923 (nominations for Tatarian) is a hint of a suggestion,” he said.
Asadoorian, who is currently working for the district as a Bullard Area trustee liaison, told GV Wire previously that the elementary school name had been promised to the Farbers. After the School Board chose Herrera’s name the Farbers were told that the next school would be named for them. That next school was the campus at Ventura and 10th.
Farbers Have Done Much for District
Supporters of the Farbers point to their work on behalf of children, the arts, and education as well as their generous philanthropy. They founded Steve’s Scholars, named after their late son Steve Farber, in 2012 to provide college scholarships to Tehipite students who maintain their grades, attendance and do community service, and who graduate from a Fresno Unified high school.
The Farbers opened Mike’s Books as free onsite libraries at two Fresno Housing communities in honor of their late son Mike, and also started “Fifth Grade on Broadway” to expose Fresno Unified fifth graders to professional theater productions.
Their nomination was supported in a City Council resolution written by Council Member Luis Chavez, a former Fresno Unified trustee and husband of Jonasson Rosas.
In light of the council resolution, Slatic questioned why Jonasson Rosas did not recuse herself from voting on the new campus name. He noted that several months ago when the School Board was considering a charter for Golden Charter Academy, Trustee Keshia Thomas recused herself from the entire process to eliminate any appearance of impropriety. Thomas’ son-in-law, Robert Golden, is the school’s founder.
So when Jonasson Rosas did not similarly recuse herself, “I’m at a befuddled loss, because I’m just a simple Marine and this politics stuff is way over my head,” Slatic said.
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How Many Buildings?
Slatic also raised questions about which buildings on the new campus would be named for Trotter, Tatarian, and Huerta. According to the current plan, there are only two buildings scheduled for construction, not three, he noted.
Under Jonasson Rosas’ motion that the board approved last month, Tatarian would be the namesake of the career technical building, Trotter’s name would be on the administration building, and Huerta’s on the early childhood center.
Karin Temple, chief operations officer for the district, explained that the career technical education classrooms will be part of the student engagement center, one of two buildings now planned.
“The suggestion was to use that name (Tatarian) on the entire building,” she said.
Trustee Veva Islas asked about whether whole buildings or portions of buildings were to be named for Trotter and Huerta.
The administrative offices, most of the classrooms, and a 5,000-square-foot space for early childhood education will be in the second building, Temple said. Trotter and Huerta were to be recognized with signs over the doorways leading to the administrative and early childhood education spaces, she said.
The primary sign on the campus would bear the Farbers’ name, Temple said.
More Naming to Come
Islas said she would consider Arax’s proposal to rename Forkner Elementary in light of J.C. Forkner’s history.
And instead of naming portions of buildings after Trotter and Huerta, she said there might be other significant buildings in the district that are as-yet unnamed and deserving of the name of Tatarian, Trotter, Huerta, or Locker.
Board President Valerie Davis said she has already asked staff to identify those buildings that would be eligible for naming honors to recognize the many deserving people “who worked at Fresno Unified, and who gave to Fresno Unified.”
Thomas said the Trotter family was “ecstatic” at the prospect of having Dolphas Trotter, the district’s first high-ranking Black administrator, be the namesake of a building, or even just part of a building.
Ultimately, and after some wrangling by chief of staff David Chavez to establish which building was being named for whom, the board voted 6-1 to name the Academic and Administration Center, which will include the early childhood space, after Trotter, a future standalone preschool building after Huerta, and not to name the student engagement center after anyone. Slatic cast the lone no vote.
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