Serranus Clinton Hastings
Serranus Clinton Hastings (Credit: Rieman & Co. via Wikimedia Commons)

Lawyer Serranus Clinton Hastings made his fortune during the California Gold Rush and served as the first chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court before giving $100,000—supposedly in gold coins—to establish the University of California’s first law school in 1878.

Hastings apparently also enjoyed hunting Native Americans.

You read that right.

The namesake of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, according to historians, financed and promoted “Indian-hunting expeditions,” in which wealthy men hunted Native Americans for sport in the mid-19th century.

Now, an adjunct professor is calling for the San Francisco law school to take a comprehensive look at Hastings’ legacy and reconsider whether his name belongs on the school.

Similarly, an attorney and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law has raised questions about a racist legacy of John Henry Boalt, after whom the school’s main building is named. Boalt was a Bay Area attorney best known, according to Charles Reichmann, for his efforts to remove the Chinese from the Golden State and his advocacy for what became the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law to bar immigrants based on their race.

Both Reichmann and John Briscoe, the Hastings adjunct, penned recent op-eds in the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing the long-dead benefactors for racism and genocide and calling for a thoughtful examination of their legacies.

It seems those calls have not gone unheard. Berkeley law spokeswoman Susan Gluss said last week that the school has formed a “diverse committee of stakeholders” to review Boalt’s history and the “appropriateness” of his name appearing on campus.

“It’s important to note that John Boalt himself had no relationship with the law school, and Boalt Hall is not the official name of the UC Berkeley School of Law,” according to a statement from the law school. “Nonetheless, the name is used widely colloquially within and outside the school, and the concerns raised are meaningful.”

Hastings has already commissioned a researcher to gather more information about the school’s namesake and plans to form a committee to parse those findings and determine whether they warrant action.

“I have an open mind as to where we go from here,” said Hastings Dean David Faigman.

Other law schools in recent years also have run into trouble because of associations with controversial figures. Last year, Harvard Law School revamped its official seal to remove the family crest of early donor and slaveholder, Isaac Royall Jr., following calls from students and an in-depth administrative review.

George Mason University faced extensive pushback from critics who opposed the renaming of its law school in 2016 for the late Antonin Scalia, citing the justice’s conservative and sometimes divisive views.

Changing a law school’s long-held official name, as in the case of Hastings, or a de facto name (Berkeley’s law school was known as Boalt Hall as recently as 2008) is a weighty matter. Reichmann and Briscoe both said in interviews last week that they aren’t asking for the Hastings and Boalt names to be stripped from their respective schools outright. Rather, they aim to raise awareness about the little-discussed and complex history of these men.

“What’s going on right now is there’s no acknowledgment of what this guy did,” Reichmann said of Boalt. “He did significant harm to a lot of people and we should talk about that. I just want to start the conversation at Berkeley.”

Reichmann said he only learned of Boalt’s involvement in the anti-Chinese movement while conducting research on racially restrictive covenants several years ago, when he came across a speech Boalt had given in 1877 at the Berkeley Club titled “The Chinese Question.” The speech argued that the Chinese who had immigrated to California during the Gold Rush would never assimilate. It was included in an official California Senate committee report on Chinese immigration. Some 20,000 copies of the speech were distributed around the country, according to Reichmann.

Boalt had no connections to Berkeley until his widow, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt, donated money to construct a law school building in 1906 in his name.

Despite the prominence of Boalt’s name on campus, his legacy goes largely unnoted at the law school, Reichmann said. He decided to dig deeper and has written a law review article on Boalt and his relationship to the law school.

William Benemann, an archivist emeritus at the law school, wrote in a comment posted to the law school-focused Faculty Lounge blog that his own research confirmed John Henry Boalt’s “anti-Chinese stance.” Yet Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt forged a meaningful relationship with the law school after donating $100,000, he wrote. The law school’s dean and five law students were pallbearers at her funeral, he said. “To change the name of Boalt Hall would be a slap in the face of a woman once highly respected in this school,” Benemann wrote.

Reichmann countered that a 1917 law school plaque expressly states that Boalt Hall is named for John Henry Boalt, not Elizabeth. The law school said it does not know of any living descendants of Boalt and an online search for relatives proved fruitless.

By contrast, Serranus Clinton Hastings included in the terms of his donation that one descendant would sit on the law school’s board of directors for as long as his line lasts. Hence, Claes Lewenhaupt, a relative and 1989 graduate of the school who is a colonel in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corp, has a lifetime board appointment. Lewenhaupt said through a law school spokesman that he is awaiting the historical report on Hastings.

Briscoe said he learned of Hastings’ participation in Native American hunts from a 2016 book, “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873,” by Benjamin Madley, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. (Briscoe’s op-ed also takes aim at Stanford University founder Leland Stanford for his role in funding Civil War-era campaigns to kill Native Americans when he was the governor of California.)

Briscoe was inspired by Reichmann’s earlier op-ed about Boalt, adding that he is opposed to a scattershot approach to deciding which historical figures are too controversial to remain etched onto storied university structures and who is allowed to remain.

He pointed to Yale University’s decision in February to rename Calhoun College because of John C. Calhoun’s promotion of slavery and white supremacy.

“My position is, ‘Let’s think deeply about this,’” Briscoe said. “Eli Yale owned slaves, but they’re talking about Calhoun Hall? I’m not in favor of changing the name of Yale University, but why this selective approach? These are institutions of higher learning. Shouldn’t there be deeper thinking and not just flailing around?”

In fact, a Yale committee led by law professor John Witt last year developed a framework for weighing renaming efforts, which considers whether the namesake’s principal legacy conflicts with the university’s central mission; whether they were involved in the institution bearing their name; why they were honored in the first place; and whether their legacies were controversial when they were alive.

Altogether, the report advocates a cautious approach to renaming in order to preserve campus traditions and continuity, and that renaming should be “an extraordinary event.”

Once Hastings has received the historian’s report on its namesake, as soon as this fall, a special committee will consider any next steps, Faigman said. But he warned that changing the school’s name is not as straightforward as it may seem.

First, the law school is enshrined in California’s state constitution, and any name change would likely require the blessing of lawmakers, Faigman said. Second, removing Hastings’ name could violate the trust agreement made with the state 139 years ago when he gave the money to start the school.

Still, Faigman said he understands the desire to dive deeper into the law school’s namesake. He first learned of Hastings’ Native American hunting exploits this spring from “An American Genocide,” and quietly laid the groundwork for the historical inquiry.

“My reaction was profound chagrin,” he said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ.