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San Francisco Officials Push To Rename Phelan Avenue Over Racist History

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) – Officials in San Francisco are making moves to erase the name of another controversial figure from the city's streets.

Phelan Avenue in the Ingleside District was named for the father of a San Francisco mayor who ran a racist campaign.

While the street out front of SF City College has been called Phelan Avenue for more than 100 years, it will soon be known by another name.

"This is not what we want today and we'll find a better name," said San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee, one of the people behind the push to change the street's name.

The street shares its name with former San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan who served just after the turn of the 20th century and went on to become a U.S. Senator.

Phelan was also an unabashed immigrant basher running on a platform of "Keeping California White" and trying to exclude those from Asian countries.

Phelan for Senator pamphlet
Phelan for Senator pamphlet (CBS)

Because of that, Supervisor Yee and some faculty from City College want the name changed.

"We will not tolerate exclusion, racism and hatred in our communities," said Yee.

But there's a twist to the story. The street isn't named for James D. Phelan at all. It is actually named for his father, James Sr., who was an Irish immigrant who prospered in real estate during the Gold Rush.

At a hearing Monday afternoon at City Hall, some who live on the street weren't willing to ignore that distinction.

"Abolishing the name Phelan from our street is only erasing history and perpetuating hate. Phelan Avenue was named after an Irish immigrant, not a racist," said Phelan Avenue homeowner Bonnie White.

Back at City College, many students KPIX 5 spoke to didn't see the logic of changing a street name because of what someone else did.

"That makes no sense. I've never heard of that before. And people just want to find any little thing these days to be mad over," said CCSF student Antoine Crecy.

But computer science student Beany Noble said it wouldn't be the first time a parent had to pay a price for the sins of their children.

"I believe there's a principal involved. People can see that Phelan's attached to that name. He's brought disgrace to his family," explained Noble.

Supervisor Yee is determined and is already asking what the new name should be.  But if he wants to eliminate other references to James D. Phelan, he won't have to look far. A bust of Phelan is the first thing you see when you enter San Francisco City Hall.

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