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USF renames residence hall for football hero Burl A. Toler

13 5.25.17_toler.teammates PAGEFour of Burl Toler’s teammates on the undefeated 1951 University of San Francisco football team gathered on campus May 9 to celebrate the naming of a residence hall in his honor. From left, Bill Henneberry, Dick Domino, Dick Colombini, Ralph Thomas. (Courtesy photo)

May 25, 2017
Catholic San Francisco

The University of San Francisco has renamed a residence hall in honor of Burl A. Toler, co-captain of the Jesuit school’s renowned 1951 football team and the first African-American official in the National Football League, dropping the name of former San Francisco mayor James D. Phelan.

Phelan, the university said, was “a leader in the anti-Japanese movement, and used fervent anti-immigration rhetoric in his campaigns for political office.”

To commemorate the event and what would have been Toler’s 89th birthday, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee pronounced May 9 as Burl A. Toler Day in San Francisco.

The action followed a unanimous resolution by the USF student senate calling for the name change.

Student concern over Phelan’s legacy goes back more than 20 years, Shaya Kara, the student senate president, told Catholic San Francisco.

“They asked the university several times to change the name,” she said. “I don’t think it was really prioritized as much. But I think this year was right for a lot of different reasons.”

The name change comes at a time of growing student advocacy on campus, one of the nation’s most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, for immigrants and Muslim students in particular.

Kara said “conversations around these different issues have always been active around campus … but now after the political climate has worsened, there’s a more cohesive push from all students for all just processes. There’s a huge concern among most of the students but we know a lot of the people on our own campus who are really affected by the policies put in place.”

The university said the dedication of Toler Hall culminated an effort by students and the administration to address Phelan’s “complex historical legacy” and “celebrate the memory of a hometown hero.”

Toler was co-captain of the undefeated 1951 USF football team. The 1951 Dons unanimously opted out of all post-season bowl games after bowl officials said the team’s two African-American players, Toler and Ollie Matson, were not welcome to attend. Toler went on to make sports history as the first African-American official in the National Football League.

“The team was built for winning and did so in impressive fashion,” Burl Toler’s son Gregory L. Toler said in the renaming dedication speech. “They were a unique group from all walks of life and they cared more about one another than the glory associated with winning. The decision they made more than 65 years ago still resonates today. Based on solid principle, they declined an invitation to participate in a bowl game after that great ‘51 season. And because of that brotherly action they will always be remembered as the team that was undefeated, untied and more importantly, undivided!”

Toler received a Bachelor of Science, teaching credentials, and a master’s in educational administration from USF. In 1968, he became San Francisco’s first African-American secondary school principal, leading Benjamin Franklin Middle School, where he remained for 17 years. The school’s Western Addition campus was dedicated to Toler in 2006 and is now the home of Gateway Public Schools. Toler served as a member of the University of San Francisco Board of Trustees from 1987-1998, and as a San Francisco Police Commissioner from 1977-1986.

Toler was a member of St. Emydius Parish from 1955 until his death and treasured his Catholic faith, university president Jesuit Father Paul Fitzgerald told Catholic San Francisco.

He “held God close as he would always say, ‘He never left home without him!’” Gregory Toler said in his speech.

Phelan was mayor of San Francisco from 1897-1902 and a U.S. senator from California from 1915-21. “Despite his public service and contributions to the growing city, he was a leader in the anti-Japanese movement, and used fervent anti-immigration rhetoric in his campaigns for political office,” the university said.

Phelan was an 1881 graduate of the USF (then called St. Ignatius College). The student residence hall, USF’s first, was named for him when it was built in 1955.

The university said it is “exploring opportunities to address Phelan’s complex biography.”

“We cannot scrub Phelan from our history, nor turn away from the complexity of his story,” Father Fitzgerald said in a university announcement. “Phelan used xenophobia to gain political office, and then worked for the reconstruction of the city following the earthquake and fire of 1906. It’s important that our community recognizes that the temptation to run campaigns built on racism and fear of immigration, which was typical of Phelan’s era, continues to exist today around the world.”

Father Fitzgerald contemplates a installing a plaque for Toler inside the entrance to the residence hall and a marker for Phelan at another location in the building.

“I want to keep Phelan’s name on campus and tell his story in its complexity, because racist rhetoric is still used to gain political power,” he told Catholic San Francisco.

He said he would like the university to recognize “that this kind of rhetoric was seen at the time to fall within normal.”

 

06 5.25.17_Toler.family PAGEBurl A. Toler’s six children and his grandchildren joined in the unveiling of Burl A. Toler Hall at the University of San Francisco on May 9. (Courtesy photo)

 

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