FORT BRAGG, 6/23/20 — Fort Bragg’s City Council started Monday’s June 22 meeting with a question that has titillated the national media: Should the council ask voters whether to rename the city?
That question morphed into a new one at the meeting, energized by Mendocino Coast’s new branch of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC)—What do Indigenous people want? In a rare event, not one but roughly a dozen local Indigenous people attended the meeting and several spoke (see the full recording and agenda here).
BIPOC members insisted the council listen to Native voices before asking for any vote. The council gave local Native leaders the privilege of speaking first, hearing about both the atrocities that happened here in the 19th century and the leaders’ new willingness to participate in solutions.
But those who assumed local Pomo would demand renaming a once Native-oppressing fort—itself honoring a Confederate General—had those assumptions shattered. Interviews and speeches showed Natives who attended split on the issue with more against than for.
The meeting was transformative for many of those who came to speak about the legacy of Braxton Bragg, a slave owner who never lived in California. The issues of who is heard, and how to confront the face of racism that still exists, as well as how the history of Ft. Bragg is told changed the debate and the tenor of the meeting to one of respectful listening.
The four-hour plus meeting attracted a crowd of about sixty people, who mostly listened outdoors to towering speakers set up on both sides of Town Hall, which worked much better than an echoing, sputtering Zoom call when the council took input that way. Everyone seemed to cooperate with extensive social distancing measures, as polite police directed people to hand sanitizer, insisting on masks, and providing ample opportunities for people to cycle in and out of the meeting. Inside Town Hall, a dozen chairs gave rather poor views of a mostly masked council, hidden by a large Plexiglas screen between speakers and councilmembers.
The younger-than-usual council meeting audience was decidedly against those people who were too passionate about keeping Fort Bragg’s name. Feelings were very strong both ways, but there was one guy nobody seemed to like—Braxton Bragg.
Dead since 1876, Braxton got an earful of condemnation Monday night from both supporters and opponents of changing the name of the city. Old Braxton may also get a verbal thumping from the Fort Bragg City Council at its first regular Monday night meeting in July.
A proclamation denouncing Braxton Bragg will be brought forward as a possible first step in a process that could eventually include rededicating the town to somebody else named Bragg.
The council also unanimously rejected the idea of putting a name change on the November ballot. Councilmembers decided getting ballot language together by the August 7 deadline would be way too rushed.
In a third decision, the council voted to help create a committee that could address racism, healing, education, and better teaching of real local history, such as the formation of the Mendocino Reservation. The committee’s structure and purpose are yet to be decided, but the council agreed it should be community-based, not city-run.
The hope is the committee would include Native Pomo, Latinos and even people who live outside the city limits. An ad-hoc council committee was appointed composed of councilmembers Jessica Morsell-Haye and Bernie Norvell. They will report back to the council at a future meeting. Forming a committee to move the town forward on race and healing satisfied a popular demand among speakers Monday night.
“We cannot ignore the hundreds of communications that have come to us in the past few weeks. The young people …are teaching us old folks so much right now across the country,” said Mayor Will Lee.
Councilmember Norvell suggested the city officially dissociate itself from Braxton Bragg, rededicating the town’s name to somebody else, such as Union General Edward Bragg. Norvell has been doing research on the former Union general and four-term US House representative from Wisconsin, a man who seems to have none of the negative characteristics of old Braxton. “There is more homework to be done on Edward (Stuyvesant) Bragg to make sure this person is squeaky clean,” Norvell said. He said it would be hard to find anyone on either side of the issue who thinks Braxton Bragg represents the values of the town.
Morsell-Haye supported the idea of a citizen commission to resolve the name change issue but has her doubts about a new old Bragg for the town. “As far as the rededication goes, I just can’t get on board with it, it’s too easy, it addresses what Braxton Bragg did but not what happened here on the coast….the history of what the Fort did,” she said.
Eventually Norvell and Morsell-Haye agreed to work together. Changing the town’s name got little support from the council Monday night but four of the five members seemed open to eventually rededicating the town to a different Bragg and disassociating from Braxton.
So how did a fishing and lumber town run by people named Johnson get named for a man who never came to California? Horatio Gates Gibson, a lieutenant serving at the Presidio of San Francisco, established a military post in 1857 to keep control of the Natives confined to the newly established Mendocino Indian Reservation. He named it for his former commanding officer in the Mexican American War, Braxton Bragg. The city was incorporated three decades later, in 1889. Braxton Bragg joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, while his once admiring subordinate Gibson fought for the Union. Bragg was a slave owner of more than 100 humans.
The fort served its ugly purpose rather quickly, surviving only eight years, much to the confusion of many tourists who visit today in search of a fort. “For the next eight years, troops stationed in Fort Bragg subjugated the Indigenous population, participating in violent campaigns against Native Americans as far north as Shelter Cove. After many of the remaining Native Americans were forcibly marched to Round Valley in 1865, the military post was abandoned. Thus ended the brief military history of Fort Bragg,” wrote Elias Henderson in comments to the city posted in the agenda packet.