I can only speculate why the Boston School Committee of the 1970s named a public school after a scientist who was one of the most outspoken proponents of the idea that Africans were a separate and inferior species.
The Louis Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain was permanently closed in June 2011, may his name rest in peace. This month, two innovative Boston Public Schools opened in the former Agassiz School building: the Mission Hill K-8 School and the new Margarita Muñiz Academy, the state’s first public two-way bilingual high school. As we welcome these two schools into our community, let us be thankful that their respective namesakes provide more positive points of reference and meaning for their students.
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873) was a Swiss-born scientist who settled in Boston, one of the leading scientists of his era. He was the founder of Harvard’s biological sciences and its Museum of Comparative Zoology, and one of the founders of the National Academy of Sciences. His research and writing in biology and natural history were exhaustive, and his teaching influential over generations of scientists.
Agassiz was also one of the most prominent advocates of the newly emerging scientific theory of separate and unequal races. His stature ensured the widespread adoption of the belief that peoples of African descent were biologically inferior to peoples of European descent. His views about race were not unusual for his time. In fact, there were few European or American scientists of the 19th century who questioned the racial order conceived by Agassiz and his peers.
It is entirely possible that the Boston School Committee of the 1970s was unaware of this particular aspect of Louis Agassiz’s legacy. I will grant them the benefit of the doubt. Generously, given that the opening of the Agassiz School in the 1970s corresponded with the School Committee’s fight against the NAACP lawsuit seeking equal educational opportunity for Boston’s African-American children.
The importance of bringing this history to light is to recognize how racism has been so insidiously injected into the mindset of our country, and to reflect on our own, contemporary understanding of morality and leadership. Many people of Agassiz’s era stepped up and challenged the dominant racist thinking of the day. Louis Agassiz justified the opposing view. Some would argue for forgiveness of this singular blind spot, given the context and his many other contributions. But let’s take another look: The period during which Louis Agassiz was at his professional height, 1840s-1860s, was the height of the abolitionist movement. And Boston was one of the centers of that movement. It would be difficult to argue that he was unaware of other views on race.
It would be too easy to simply call Louis Agassiz a product of his era. We should expect more than that of our leaders.
Editor’s Note: The writer is a former Boston School Committee member and the author of “The Education of a White Parent: Wrestling with Race and Opportunity in the Boston Public Schools.”