By Kevin Hall, July 1, 2021, Community Alliance
The ongoing debate over school names took a deep dive last month into Fresno’s past. Mark Arax, a former Los Angeles Times writer and the author of four books on this city and region, bothered by the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) board’s casual dismissal of the proposal to name a new school planned for southeast Fresno after Roger Tatarian, took a closer look. He was joined by novelist Aris Jarnigian. What the men found was darker than anyone imagined.
Their in-depth article, “Just beneath the dirt: Where the racism of Fresno began,” ran in the Fresno Bee on June 11. The pair reveal that J.C. Forkner Elementary School in northwest Fresno is named for the original author of the city’s restrictive deeds denying land and homes to Armenians in Fresno’s northern neighborhoods, a move motivated by revenge for Armenian farmers’ refusal to join the nascent Sun-Maid Raisin co-op a century ago. Violent raids by night riders and the burning of crosses were directed at those who resisted.
“In the days before the meeting, we went to the county assessor’s office and found examples of the exclusionary real estate codes that for a half century had kept people of color from living beyond the ghetto,” they wrote. “This restriction, which stayed in effect until the early 1960s, was everyday business for the developer, a man who platted his tracts across Fresno.
“He was the same boomer who in the middle 1910s began carving out the 12,000 acres of Fig Garden. His full-page ads boasted: ‘Fresno’s choicest suburban property will be sold under rigid restrictions—this is a point we cannot emphasize too strongly. Those who buy [here] will be fully protected from resale of property to undesirables.’”
In a YouTube video titled “Social Justice School Board Fails Social Justice Exam,” Arax describes to the school board how when Forkner wanted to plant those fig trees he had to go to “the Fig King himself—Henry Markarian, an Armenian. In other words, our fig trees were allowed into Fig Garden, but our flesh and blood was not.”
At the board’s June 16 meeting, Arax called on the board to remove the name Forkner from the school and replace it with Tatarian, a Fresno native born to parents who had fled the Turks’ genocidal campaign. He was refused work at the Fresno Bee of the 1960s but rose to the top of his profession as editor of United Press International in New York. He later returned to his hometown and taught a generation of journalists at Fresno State, Arax included.
The school board’s 5-2 vote, with Trustees Veva Islas and Terry Slatic voting no, to ignore this history in favor of individual trustees’ political interests was a stark reminder to all that institutional racism is perpetuated when those in charge are unwilling to look at their role in it.
To this day, not a single one of the FUSD’s more than 110 schools and facilities is named for an Armenian. And Trustees Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Valerie Davis, Claudia Cazares, Keshia Thomas and Carol Mills appear to be intent on keeping that unique piece of Fresno’s racist history—of American history—alive.