June 12 2021
Will Fresno Unified rename Forkner Elementary school? Here's what would need to happen
Monica Velez, The Fresno Bee
Jun. 12—After Fresno school board members rejected a proposal to name its newest campus after a local Armenian icon, another local Armenian leader wants the board to rename an elementary school after him instead.
Arax wants the board to rename the school H. Roger Tatarian Elementary School. At least one board member, Trustee Veva Islas, said she would support renaming the school after Tatarian.
"Mark's uncovering of the naming of Forkner Elementary after Jesse Clayton Forkner, who was openly a bigot and racist, was eye-opening, to say the least," Islas said in an email to the Ed Lab. "I don't believe someone like him deserves to be memorialized."
Arax said he felt "discombobulated" when board members didn't react to his presentation on the systemic racism Forkner contributed to in Fresno. Forkner would not sell land to Armenians or people of color, Arax said.
"You would think this is a no-brainer," Arax said in a recent phone interview with the Ed Lab. "A school is named after one of the most powerful white supremacists in Fresno history. They (FUSD board members) reacted not just with silence but with contempt."
Islas was the only board member to comment on Arax's remarks during the meeting, saying changing the name would be "just."
Regardless of the support from the board, Arax said, the Armenian community isn't going to let this go.
Alongside other community members in Fresno, Arax said he plans to build support for naming a school after Tatarian, a former journalist, Fresno State professor, and author.
What do other FUSD trustees say?
In an interview with the Ed Lab, Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said the district needs to establish policies and procedures to deal with school name changes. She recommends creating a citizens committee so the recommendations can come from the community.
"In all reality, this is an issue not only locally, but I would say it's a nationwide (topic) that people are revisiting," Jonasson Rosas said. "I really think we should look at our policies of not only naming (of schools) going forward but what criteria we would use to go backward. Because it's not a clear-cut issue."
Trustee Terry Slatic said, if the board decides to examine a potential name change, they should re-evaluate all school names for potential issues. He described the issues raised by Arax as "extremely concerning."
"Everything should be looked at on a level playing field," Slatic said.
Islas echoed Slatics' comments and said there are other school mascots, campuses, and buildings in FUSD named after people with problematic pasts.
"Royce Hall (building on Fresno High School's campus) is another example of a historical figure who advanced racist policies," Islas said. "Yes, if we are to truly be an anti-racist institution, I think that we need to take the action that dismantles the racist foundations within FUSD."
Slatic also said the district should do its own research on Forkner and then decide if it's problematic enough to be changed.
Islas and Slatic both said there should be a school named after someone in the Armenian community, and Tatarian would be a good fit.
"I believe that the Armenian community deserves to see the naming of one of their own on a school, campus, or building- without a doubt," Islas said. "It is a question both of honoring the contributions of the Armenian community and the advancement of equity."
If FUSD board members wanted to change the name of a school, board policy indicates the district would put out a survey to the community to get input on names for the facility, and the board would review it and then make a final decision, spokesperson Amy Idsvoog told the Ed Lab in an email.
Who was Jesse Clayton Forkner?
Forkner, also known as J.C Forkner, was born in Cherokee County, Kansas, in 1873. He died in 1969 at the age of 96.
Forkner is mostly known for developing Fig Garden, which spanned 12,000 acres. About 120 miles of road was created, about 600,000 fig trees and 60,000 ornamental trees were planted.
Arax has researched Forkner extensively and wrote about him in his latest book, The Dreamt Land, where he chronicles the racist past of Forkner's developments and discrimination against Armenians and communities of color.
To plant these fig trees, Arax said Forkner had no choice but to get them from an Armenian man.
Although the figs were provided by an Armenian man, Henry Markarian, who Arax dubbed the "Fig King," Armenians were not allowed to live or buy land in Fig Garden. Forkner included discriminatory clauses in the land he sold.
Part of the clause reads: "That neither the said premises nor any buildings thereon shall in any manner be used or occupied by Asiatics, Mongolians, Hindus, Negroes, Armenians or any natives or descendants of the Turkish empire …"
There was a lot of hate against Armenians when they first arrived in Fresno, Arax said, and Forkner directly impacted that discrimination, along with racism toward communities of color.