A grassroots effort from Fresno’s Armenian community is pushing for Fresno Unified to name a campus after H. Roger Tatarian — a renowned journalist, professor, author, and Fresno native (Fresno Bee file)

Fresno Board Stands against Racism and Upholds an Armenian Star by Renaming School

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By Tad Weber

FRESNO (Fresno Bee) – After a torturous process that dragged out over several months, the Fresno Unified School District trustees did the right thing Wednesday night, October 13, in renaming Forkner Elementary for one of the city’s star residents.

As of fall 2022, the school in northwest Fresno will become H. Roger Tatarian Elementary. That is important for three reasons.

First, Tatarian was a Fresno native who rose to become editor in chief of United Press International, one of the world’s two leading wire services. As such, he oversaw a news report that went to millions around the globe. Just on those merits alone, naming a school after Tatarian was deserved.

Second, Tatarian was an Armenian American. Fresno Unified has more than 100 campuses, and none had been named for an Armenian. The Armenian heritage in Fresno covers more than a century, having begun out of the genocide that started in 1915 in their European homeland, then controlled by Ottoman Turks. About 1.5 million Armenians died in that genocide, an event many historians think was a precursor to the Nazi Germany’s attempt to rid the world of Jews in the Holocaust.Third, Forkner refers to J.C. Forkner, a Fresno builder who developed Fig Garden. Forkner used deed restrictions that made buyers commit to not selling their homes to any “Asiatics, Mongolians, Hindus, Negroes, Armenians or any natives or descendants of the Turkish empire … .”

The practice morphed into red-lining by financial institutions, and effectively shut off home-purchasing opportunities to anyone from those groups. Fresno suffers today from the impacts of such race-based restrictions.

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This larger point was mostly lost on a group of Forkner parents who attended the school board meeting to protest the renaming.

Forkner and Racism

It is probably asking too much to expect such parents to see the bigger picture. Forkner is their children’s school, and they would want to keep it as is. That is understandable.

But, one parent inadvertently got to the larger meaning when she said the restrictions put in place by Forkner in first half of the 1900s were legal.

Yes, they were. But that’s the point. It was legalized racism. It was also legal at one time to keep Black students separate from white kids. In Fresno, it was legal to keep Chinese residents “across the tracks” from where whites lived. Being legal then does not make it right.

Thankfully, in 2021, Americans — and Fresnans — are coming to grips with mistakes and failures of the past. It is simplistic to label it as “cancel culture.” Actually, it is better called maturing.

Renaming this elementary school pays overdue honor to Fresno’s Armenian community and, at the same time, stamps out the memory of a man who built his wealth through the use of racist covenants.

The school trustees of decades ago, when Forkner first opened, should never have named it after him. But they did, and years later a different board — composed of a Black woman, three Latinas, a Filipina and a white man — unanimously made the right decision.

Teaching Moment

Mark Arax, a local Armenian-American, former Los Angeles Times reporter and best-selling author, told the board that renaming the campus after Tatarian would accomplish historical restitution and reckoning.

He also encouraged the Forkner staff and parents to use this as a teaching moment. That’s probably a hard sell, given the high emotions on display at the meeting.

But that is exactly what it is. The renaming can only be properly understood in the context of the greater meaning. The students at Forkner Elementary should know the truth about their old namesake, and the honorable reason for their new one. That’s known as education.

Tad Weber is The Bee’s opinion editor.

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