Change the name
Until recently, the history of the namesake of the Charles M. Goethe Middle School of the Sacramento City Unified School District has been largely forgotten. If Charles Goethe (1876-1966) was remembered at all, it was as a mildly eccentric Sacramento banker-turned-philanthropist who promoted playgrounds and redwoods.
But over the past decade, scholars recovered Goethe’s dominant passion and career: as a leader in the eugenics movement that enacted laws enabling the forcible sterilization of tens of thousands of people and promoted the “Nordic” type as a genetically superior class. Perhaps most notoriously, Goethe propagandized in favor of the Nazis’ eugenic sterilization program—a program that sterilized hundreds of thousands before turning to direct killing of the disabled and laying the groundwork for the Holocaust. Goethe wrote to his California colleagues from 1935 Germany that he hoped they understood California’s influence on Hitler’s program and would “carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60,000,000 people.”
After the war and revelation of the death camps, no one wished to carry this memory. The history of California and American eugenics disappeared. Even though he never recanted his views, Goethe’s name became attached to a middle school, to Sacramento parks and streets and even to a conference room at the California Academy of Sciences.
Now, a group associated with the middle school has campaigned to remove his name and dissociate the school from Goethe’s hidden past. Given that schools are named for those deemed worthy role models, there is indeed just cause and justice in their demand. The name should be changed.
But remembering Goethe’s past should not serve as a means to forget what occurred. The task of bringing California’s eugenic era fully into the light remains. Eugenics was one of the dominant forces in the 20th century’s first 50 years. The ruling elites in California, from the presidents of Stanford and Caltech to the Los Angeles Times, aggressively advocated eugenics. State hospitals in Stockton and elsewhere were sites for the coercive sterilization of over 20,000 Californians. Eugenicists like Goethe calculated that a successful eugenic program would require the sterilization of 10 to 15 million Americans. In other words, it almost happened here.
During the past decade, through the work of scholars like Tony Platt at CSUS, Kathryn Sylva at UC Davis and others, the history of California eugenics is being recovered. But much remains to be done. For example, we still do not have a proper state accounting or memorial of those 20,000 Californians coercively sterilized.
As importantly, this history has yet to be integrated into the teaching of California history. If the Sacramento Unified School District wishes to responsibly address the issue, it will not only approve the name change, but also will inquire into how the state’s eugenic history should be incorporated into the curriculum. In that manner, we should indeed fulfill Goethe’s wish to carry this memory with us for the rest of our lives.