The Mountain View Whisman School District is dropping Huff Elementary School's namesake after the school board voted unanimously last week to rename the school after Amy Imai, a Japanese American woman with strong ties to Mountain View.
District officials last year sought to change the school's name after it was revealed that Frank L. Huff espoused racist and anti-immigrant views. Mountain View joins a growing number of Bay Area cities that have dumped school namesakes over actions and views considered reprehensible today.
Trustees voted to rename to school on June 17 following a year of searching for a suitable replacement, ultimately landing on Imai. The runners-ups were late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and NASA scientist Katherine Johnson.
Imai, born in 1930, grew up in Mountain View before her family was forcibly relocated to an internment camp during World War II. She was taken to the Heart Mountain Detention Center in northern Wyoming, along with many other Japanese-American families who were living in the Bay Area at the time. She returned as a teenager and graduated from Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, and went on to run a carnation business in Mountain View with her husband for close to 30 years.
Throughout her life, Imai stayed involved with local schools, both public and private. She took an active role in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District and would often speak to students about her experiences during her internment. She was a Dharma school teacher with the Mountain View Buddhist Temple for 45 years.
Among those in support of the name change was Bob Matsumoto, president of the Mountain View Buddhist Temple, who told board members at a June 3 meeting that Imai had a "huge impact" on the temple, both as a teacher and a source of inspiration. Naomi Nakano-Matsumoto, a Fremont Union High School District trustee, told board members that Imai was the "clear choice" due to her local ties, her influence as a role model and her ancestry. About 45% of Huff's students are identified as either Asian or Pacific Islander.
"This would be a great way to show our students the fact that we recognize Asian Pacific Islanders and the contributions of women," Nakano-Matsumoto said.
Starting in June 2020, district officials created a 17-member advisory committee to pick a new name for Huff Elementary School, following a swift decision by the board that the school must be renamed. Each name was judged with the same criteria, which considers whether the person represents inclusivity, academics and societal growth and charge. What tipped the scales in Imai's favor, however, was that she reflected the diversity of Huff Elementary's community.
Board member Ellen Wheeler said she had immense respect for Ginsburg and Johnson, but she doubted it would be a big deal for either of their families if a school was named after them. Imai, on the other hand, was the clear favorite among local families.
"To the city of Mountain View -- and to hear the testimonials of commenters and letter-writers -- this is major," Wheeler said.
The timing is also significant, said board member Chris Chiang. Mountain View's Asian American and Pacific Islander community has rallied in recent months against an increase in hate crimes and violence. What's more, a school name can be used as a vehicle to talk about history, particularly the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast during World War II.
"It's powerful right now that we have this chance to tell this story," Chiang said.
Mountain View Whisman's move to rename Huff coincided with a similar effort in Berkeley to rename schools named after George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. A larger-scale effort by San Francisco's school board to rename 44 school was put on hold in April following significant pushback that prompted a lawsuit by critics.
Palo Alto Unified School District, Mountain View Whisman's neighbor, renamed two of its schools in 2018 after two of the school's namesakes, Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan, were found to be leaders in the discredited eugenics movement. The process was much more divisive than in Mountain View, however, taking Palo Alto a total of two and a half years.
Old biographical accounts of Frank L. Huff detail how he objected to immigration for anyone who was "out of harmony with American institutions and ideals, particularly those of such blood as cannot be assimilated by the Caucasian race to its benefit." The profile suggests he thought that Italian Americans could assimilate, but not others.
Mountain View Whisman school board president Devon Conley said she took that to mean Huff disapproved of Asian Americans, and that renaming the school after the people he denigrated could be a strong symbolic gesture. Imai's name was suggested by City Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, Conley said, and is a chance to right that wrong.
"I personally wanted to find someone who represented the very groups of people who, unfortunately, Huff had discriminated against. I wanted to close the circle of justice and have some healing here," Conley said. "He was anti-immigrant, he was anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese immigrants who helped build Mountain View -- who are part of our community."