All images provided by author. Top: image of the controversial plaque.
A plaque lies hidden in an obscure corner at Washington High School. On the surface it looks simple. It is golden-edged and says This building is dedicated to Truth Liberty Toleration By The Native Sons of The Golden West August 24, 1924. With the mention of the Native Sons of the Golden West, however, things become slightly more complicated.
NSGW was founded on July 11, 1865 with the goal of honoring the Forty Niners, the first white people to settle in California and take advantage of the gold rush, and preserving “the spirit of the ‘Days of’ 49’ and the history of California.” The organization holds the same mission today, continuing its focus on “staying Californian.”
Much of the controversy surrounding NSGW concerns its racist history. In the 1920s, the organization’s Grand President wrote that “California was given by God to a white people, and with God’s strength we want to keep it as He gave it to us.” This statement shows that NSGW, in the past, embraced the concept of the white man’s burden, the idea that white men were responsible for “liberating”, educating, and “civilizing” indigenous people. NSGW also opposed the immigration of many ethnic minorities. Additionally, the organization committed many crimes against Japanese Americans during WWII: they spread inaccurate, harmful information about the community in efforts to stigmatize them and induce fear amongst Americans, led unsuccessful efforts in the 1940s to remove their citizenship statuses, and continued trying to limit the community’s rights and their role in society. However, the organization’s history isn’t black or white, racist or anti-racist, as surprisingly, despite the openly racist nature of some of their actions, the Native Sons of the Golden West were also strong advocates for indigenous rights. This was a very unique stance for the organization to take during the 1920s—when racial tensions ran high as a result of the ongoing Civil Rights movement. Something else that is interesting is that the organization was backed by prominent political figures such as 37th President Richard Nixon and Chief Justice Earl Warren. The involvement of such powerful figures shows how NSGW was not just any organization. They were powerful and had a great deal of influence over American politics.
Today, the Native Sons of The Golden West center themselves on the principles of friendship, loyalty, and charity. They focus primarily on preserving history by commemorating historical institutions in California. They also purchase historical statues, restore them, and donate them to California’s state parks. Additionally, they hold a fourth grade essay contest, offer opportunities to win education scholarships, and have museums to showcase their work and efforts toward preservation of California parks, buildings, and other establishments. The organization continues to only allow those born in California to become members. Most importantly, as of now, there is no proof that the organization is currently racist or harms ethnic minorities.
NSGW gifted the plaque to Washington High School in order to honor the school’s role as a historical institution in California; additionally, the organization has contributed money to the school.
In the past, after learning about NSGW’s relationship with Washington, some students led unsuccessful efforts to remove the plaque. The most recent of efforts is currently being led by Washington senior Amanda Cawthorn, who has once again brought this issue into the spotlight. Immediately after Cawthorn learned about the plaque, they were confused as to why it had remained on-campus for so long despite the administration’s knowledge of NSGW’s racist past; they were also suspicious of the plaque’s location and believe that it has been hidden from students on purpose. Additionally, they were frustrated by the administration’s lack of response to student concerns in the past and some older teachers’ insistence that the plaque should remain. They spoke to their friends, who encouraged them to do something about the situation. Inspired, they started both a petition and a movement, dubbed “The Removement,” in the hopes that their efforts would help benefit the community by “getting one more racist thing off campus.” Though “removing it might not make a huge change to everyone,” they do believe “it will make us [The WHS community] better.”
Cawthorn’s petition is currently at 353 signatures. As of now, “The Removement” is waiting on principal Bob Moran to evaluate the situation and get back to Cawthorn and others with next steps.
Some students feel that petitions are a shallow form of activism because they allow people to engage with causes without actually having to do meaningful work, bringing up questions of performativity. These students believe peer pressure and the desire to be politically correct were the driving factors behind many students’ decisions to sign. These factors often prevent students truly considering the nuanced nature of the situation, leading them to sign before even researching. Additionally, petitions may not always be useful because a signature doesn’t necessarily equate to how strongly someone cares about a cause.
Many students immediately formed their thoughts on the plaque. Some believed that because no one knew about it, it was irrelevant to the Washington community: if it’s not an active part of students’ everyday lives, there is no point in removing it. However, some did mention that they heard that fellow students were trying to email the administration about it—showing how there were students who were aware of its existence. Others cited financial concerns, saying that removing the plaque would be a waste of money. These students believe that the money used to remove it could be put towards a better cause and that a cheaper alternative would be covering the plaque with something else. Others say that Washington students know that racism is bad and that removing the plaque won’t change this core belief, making it a pointless pursuit.
The Native Sons of The Golden West.
Some say the plaque is no longer controversial because many of NSGW’s actions against ethnic minorities were taken almost a century ago. This group of people believes that organizations can change, grow, and begin representing new beliefs. It is important to note that many prominent organizations have also had very controversial pasts. For example, in the 1970s, The American Red Cross did not allow men who had sex with men to donate blood, highlighting the homophobic nature of their policies. Additionally, environmentalist Madison Grant—who believed that “Unlimited immigration” and intermarriage…were ‘sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss’”—played a massive role in the development of the American National Parks system. Lastly, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger created the organization on the basis of eugenics, claiming that birth control could be used in “…the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” However, these organizations are widely accepted and praised for their work today. Because NSGW isn’t actively harming marginalized communities and currently stands for different beliefs—meaning they may have grown like these other organizations, some believe Washington should not remove the plaque.
Another interesting point brought up is that throughout history, NSGW has always been in-line with American beliefs, unlike organizations like the Klu Klux Klan. For example, during World War II, anti-Asian sentiment was extremely prevalent. Thus NSGW’s attitude towards Japanese Americans mirrored the American public’s thoughts. According to a Gallup poll, “In 1942, 48% of Americans said that Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II should not be allowed to return to the Pacific coast after the war. Half of this group said the detainees should be sent ‘back to Japan.’”
Some students say that though organizations can change and grow, unless there is proof of this growth, the organization cannot be trusted. These students take issue with NSGW’s lack of an apology or reparations. Because of this, this group believes that NSGW could still be harboring racist beliefs behind closed doors. They believe that organizations who have apologized can be trusted, whereas others, like NSGW, cannot. Additionally, the fact that NSGW seems to be all-white organization, based on photos on their website, feels suspicious, considering that according to the Public Policy Institute of California, white Americans only make up 36% of California’s population. Others say that safe spaces such as schools shouldn’t have plaques associated with racist organizations. Having the plaque removed will make students’ voices feel heard and respected. Because the plaque was given to the school in the 1920s—when NSGW carried these racist sentiments, some believe it still represents white supremacy and racism today, regardless of the organization’s current goals.
Others believe that by setting the precedent of doing whatever students want if a couple hundred students sign a petition, the school is making it seem like it will bend to the whims of a minority of the student body. Adding on to this, some believe it’s important to understand what all students want before making a decision, and that the school should only proceed to remove the plaque if a majority of the students agree.
Additionally, some say that removing the plaque erases history, allowing it to repeat, claiming that history exists for a reason and that just because something is wrong doesn’t mean Washington can remove it. These students believe we should learn from the past instead of acting like Washington was never affiliated with a racist organization
Ultimately, all of these arguments boil down to two questions: Should we keep the plaque, and if we do, now acknowledging NSGW’s racist past, what should we do with it?
There are a plethora of options.
One is to keep the plaque in front of the school and educate all students about NSGW—either by adding information near it or having teachers speak to students about it. By doing so, Washington will show its commitment to acknowledging and learning about California’s and NSGW’s racist past. However, using a symbol of racism to educate students about racism is quite ironic.
Washington could leave it at simply educating students about the plaque, but others say after learning about it and acknowledging different arguments for or against it, students should form their own opinions and vote on whether or not to remove it. This would ensure that everyone’s opinions are heard, instead of just the 350 students who signed the petition who are not necessarily representative of the entire school.
Washington could also remove the plaque, thereby empowering students instead of giving power to NSGW. The school could also use the money it would take to remove the plaque on making a new one that represents the student body’s current opinions.
Though on the surface the controversy surrounding the plaque seems like it has a simple resolution, there are many complexities to consider before choosing a stance on this issue. Ultimately, the decision lies in the hands of the Washington community—it is now time for Huskies to consider what exactly they want to do.
The Hatchet reached out to the Native Sons of the Golden West for their thoughts on the situation but did not receive a response.