Historic Markers at SB Courthouse Celebrate Colonial Exploits of "White Men...White Women, Children"
By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers
A few yards from a busy entrance to the historic Santa Barbara County Courthouse, two weather-worn plaques, affixed to a sandstone boulder, attest to California's Spanish Colonial period -- in words that seem painful and problematic in our present moment.
The inscription on the older of the two plaques, rendered in all capital letters, reads as follows:
The second, attached to the opposite side of the stone, reads:
An alert Newsmakers reader, who requested anonymity, sent us an image of one of the panels, concerned about the message it sends, particularly at a time of nationwide unrest over racism and the removal and tearing down of Confederate statues and other historic markers.
"Plaque greeting visitors to the Courthouse!" they wrote, protesting the presence of the marker on the grounds of Santa Barbara's most iconic landmark, visited by thousands of tourists a year,
Objecting to "the offensive, racist language" of the plaques, Board of Supervisors President Gregg Hart told us last night that he intends to see they are "removed as soon as possible" from the Courthouse grounds.
"I'd like them removed as soon as tomorrow," Hart told Newsmakers.
The 1927 plaque, dated two years before the Courthouse was completed, is catalogued on the Historical Marker Database, which describes more than 115,000 historical markers in the nation; the listing notes other plaques on the grounds, including "The First Ruling Sovereign of Europe to Visit America," "President Reagan Meets Queen Elizabeth II" and "Tympanum."
Portola was a soldier and administrator of Spain's Viceroyalty of New Spain colony, who explored and expanded its Las Californias province far north, from Baja California to San Francisco Bay.
The 1938 plaque is along the route of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which recalls the 1,200 mile expedition of the New Spain military officer that established the first colonial settlement near San Francisco. The trail is managed by the National Park Service; the Courthouse marker, however, is not listed on its website, although five other sites in Santa Barbara County, including El Presidio de Santa Barbara, are.
"My first reaction to seeing the plaques was total confusion," said City Council member Oscar Gutierrez, who kindly took fresh photos of both plaques for a quarantined Newsmakers geezer after we showed him the image we were sent.
"Why would the Daughters of the American Revolution be honoring a Spanish colonizer's religious mission on public and state land? Why are those facts not noted on the plaques but their skin color is?" he said. "The plaques don't seem to be completely historically accurate or acknowledge the consequences of the colonizers' actions. I'm glad the county is taking action."
California members of the Daughters of the American Revolution have been active in sponsoring other markers and sites of the historic trail around the state.
Founded in 1890, after women were rejected for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution, DAR is a non-profit that, among other activities, promotes historic preservation. Membership, which the group claims at more than 1 million women, is based on genealogy: new members must prove "lineal descent from a patriot of the American Revolution."
Viewed as a conservative organization, the DAR in the last century had a fraught history of racism, and did not admit a Black member until 1977.
Last month, however, amid the protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the organization released a statement called "The DAR's continuing commitment to equality," which stated that "our organization condemns racism. Bias, prejudice and intolerance have no place in the DAR or America."
Efforts to reach a DAR representative last night were unsuccessful.*
[Editor's Note: The below update by Jerry Roberts includes a response from DAR]
SB's DAR Leader Agrees Courthouse Markers Should Go -- Suggests Possible "Replacement Plaques"
The leader of Santa Barbara's Daughters of the American Revolution chapter on Monday agreed that two controversial plaques on the Courthouse grounds that celebrate the Spanish Colonial period should be removed.
Jane Frederick, Regent of the Mission Canyon Chapter of the DAR, told Newsmakers that the plaques, dated 1927 and 1938, were donated by now-defunct branches of the national non-profit group.
"We don't object," to the removal of the two markers, Frederick said. "The reconsideration of colonization is completely under scrutiny right now, and they need to come down."
As we reported earlier, the older marker commemorates the arrival in Santa Barbara of an expedition led by colonial governor Gaspar de Portola in 1769, identified as "the first white men to march through the wilderness of California." The other honors "the first white women and children who marched through California," and encamped nearby, with a group of families led by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1776.
After learning of the two markers, Board of Supervisors Chair Gregg Hart denounced their "racist and offensive language" and said he would see to their removal. Both he and Frederick confirmed Monday that they spoke after our post was published.
"He was really wanting to be reassured that we wouldn't object," to the removal, Frederick told us. "Jane supports removing the plaques," said Gregg.
A 1972 and 1976 member of the USA Olympic Track and Field Team, who set the first official world record in the women's heptathlon, Frederick said she became concerned about the language of the markers when she first learned of them after becoming active in the DAR several years ago; as the current chapter Regent, she said, she now has surveyed the executive board and there is "consensus" for supporting Hart's move.
The DAR is active in historic preservation and Frederick added that the local chapter will consider the appropriateness of a possible "plaque replacement" for the Courthouse marker; the group will "investigate whether the events honored were important enough" to deserve historic commemoration and, if so, determine what updated, "collaborative language" is appropriate for describing them.
"We'll talk about what's next," she added.