What's in a Name?

Posted by Pete Shanks September 14, 2009
Biopolitical Times
William Shockley

The naming of a new park after noted eugenicist William Shockley has drawn international attention to the small town of Auburn, California.

Shockley, with two others, won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the transistor. In later years, however, he devoted much of his time and energy to genetics, work that he regarded as more important than his role in launching the semiconductor industry. He insisted that African Americans were less intelligent than whites, and suggested paying people with IQs less than 100 to be sterilized. He died in 1989.

His widow, however, lived until 2007, and bequeathed 28 acres to Auburn for a park, stipulating that it be named "Nobel Laureate William B. Shockley and his wife Emmy L. Shockley Memorial Park." (He never lived there, but the family had ties with the area; the town already has Shockley Road, Shockley Court and Shockley Woods Court.) The local Park District accepted the gift in March, which provoked quite a local outcry.

On August 31st, the Wall Street Journal picked up on the story; so did the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And now the NAACP has weighed in. Their local branch is on record as supporting efforts to "prevent the Auburn community from bearing the stain of racism." The District, however, insists that the name is a done deal.

Several states have issued formal apologies for past eugenics abuses, but how to acknowledge and learn from the past remains controversial. Nearby Sacramento has renamed a high school and a park that used to commemorate the prominent eugenicist Charles M. Goethe, but and the arboretum at the California State University campus there, which he helped develop, still no longer bears his name.

The campus does have a website on the history of eugenics in California, and in 2005 hosted a conference on the subject. That included a reception at the Julia Morgan House, which Goethe's bequest had designated as a eugenics museum; he would have been disappointed by the critical materials assembled.

Perhaps some similar permanent historical exhibit would help Auburn out of the unfortunate bind the town is now in.

Note: The former Goethe Arboretum has been renamed the University Arboretum.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: