Change Our Name Fort Bragg went public this weekend with its intention to petition California’s Advisory Committee on Geographic Names to change the Mendocino coastal town’s name, which they decry for its evocation of “genocide, extreme violence, and structural racism of white supremacy.”
There is one problem with their plan: these name change committees cannot change the name of incorporated communities.
Gina Anderson, a Public Affairs Specialist with the United State Board of Geographic Names (BGN), told us that her organization’s “authority to name or rename places applies only to natural features, as well as reservoirs, canals, channels, and unincorporated communities.”
Anderson went on to say, “Any decision to rename the City of Fort Bragg would be made by the city government, presumably requiring an amendment to its legal charter. The BGN would not be asked to vote on the matter but would simply record the change.”
California’s Advisory Committee on Geographic Names (CACGN) is charged with forwarding California-specific, name change recommendations to the United States Board on Geographic Names, which according to the CACGN charter has “the ultimate authority for determining each name change proposal.”
This means that even if California’s name change honchos were to recommend Fort Bragg change its name, as a Federal representative told us, a review board would deny it and punt the question back to the City of Fort Bragg which already went through a contentious, rigorous review of the question in 2020.
The City of Fort Bragg established a commission to consider the name change after the murder of George Floyd. Change Our Name advocates held that Fort Bragg’s name is a “continuation of the national racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and includes the removal of Confederate statues from public places.”
After a year of consideration, 60 hours of meetings, and an informal survey of nearly 7,000 residents, the City of Fort Bragg’s commission opted to not issue a “yes” or “no”. One commissioner said. “As a commission, we came to the conclusion that, at this time, because the citizens are so divided, this commission cannot unanimously recommend a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
More recently, the name change activists set their sights on the Fort Bragg Unified School District advocating that school leaders and trustees scrub “Fort Bragg” from the name of the city’s schools.
At an April 20, 2023 school board meeting, members of the public expressed concern this committee could result in a small body unilaterally approving the removal of “Fort Bragg” from local schools without input from the community at large.
In response to pressure from the name change activists, the Fort Bragg Unified School District issued an official statement on May 17, 2023, that read,
“we do not think it is in the interests of our students and community members to consider a change (of school names) in isolation. It is evident that any such consideration will only bring division to our community and detract from our mission of delivering exceptional, engaging, equitable, and collaborative learning opportunities for all students.”
John S. Lushenko and Rus Jewett, organizing members of Save Our Town’s Name, an advocacy group fighting to retain Fort Bragg’s name, told us, “The significant level of support indicated by Save Our Name Fort Bragg, with a larger number of supporters (846) compared to CON’s reported 162, as well as our over 3,000 supportive signatures on our SON petitions, demonstrates the concerns and sentiments of community members, who are advocating for retaining the name Fort Bragg.”
From what Lushenko and Jewett believe, “the majority of Fort Bragg residents, who wish to keep the name of the town of Fort Bragg California should be recognized, honored, and respected. It’s not up to any one member or group to be allowed to change the town’s name.”
It should be noted after nearly three years of advocacy, name change activists have not attempted to bring the issue to a municipal ballot instead pressuring municipal and government groups to weigh in.
Fundamentally, Change Our Name advocates argue both “Fort” and “Bragg” are words rooted in historical wrongs.
The area of Fort Bragg was christened in 1857 as Mendocino County’s first military post. Troops were garrisoned in the area supervising the Mendocino Indian Reservation. The word Fort, name change advocates argue, conjures the subjugation and genocide of local native tribes.
“Bragg” stands as a nod to Confederate General Braxton Bragg, which the name change advocates argue is Mendocino County’s homage to the Lost Cause and the white supremacy it represents. It is worth noting, the name Fort Bragg was named in 1857, four years before the Civil War began.
Name change activists argue their grievances with the name “Fort Bragg” align with the spirit of Assembly Bill 2022, brought forward by Assembly James Ramos, the first Native American to serve in the California House of Representatives and prolific advocate for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The legislation required the word “squaw”, an English word that often is used as an ethnic and sexual slur against Native American women, be removed from all of California’s geographic names by January 2025.
This legislation influenced the recent name change of the prominent landmark between Cloverdale and Hopland long known as Squaw Rock. Officially dubbed Frog Woman Rock in March of this year, the name change stands as an example of Assembly Bill 2022 coming to fruition.