The School Name

The official name of the law school is the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Since early 2008, it has been primarily referred to as Berkeley Law. But for nearly its entire history prior to that, the law program at UC Berkeley was called Boalt Hall.

The name originates with John and Elizabeth Boalt, an Oakland couple with ties to the university. In 1906, when the growing Department of Jurisprudence outgrew its single classroom in North Hall, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt offered to pay for the construction of a new building as a memorial to her late husband, attorney John Henry Boalt. The gift eventually led to the construction in 1911 of “Boalt Memorial Hall of Law” in the center of campus (now known as Durant Hall).

In the fall of 1951, the law school moved from that building to its present location. The wing of the building used for instruction was called the Boalt Hall of Law, the library was named after Garret McEnerney, and a moot court space was named for donor Luke Kavanaugh. While technically Boalt Hall referred to just a wing of the building, the school itself was already commonly referred to as Boalt Hall both internally and externally.

Who were the Boalts?

Married after the end of the Civil War, John and Elizabeth Boalt initially settled in Austin, Nevada, where John formed a partnership in a mining and assaying business. John’s business inevitably involved him in the rapidly-developing field of mining law and— because he was the son of lawyer—he had a natural interest in the subject. Though he never attended a formal law school, he began to “read the law,” and in 1867 he was admitted to the Nevada bar. From 1870 to 1871 he even served as a judge.

Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt
Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt

The couple moved to California in 1871 and settled in Oakland. John opened a law practice in San Francisco, at first specializing in mining law, but then developing a more general practice.

The Boalts, who had a small daughter at the time, took a lively interest in the University of California, befriending faculty and hosting them at their home for Sunday morning breakfasts. Their social connections to the university spanned many years.

Anti-Chinese views

John Boalt was never a politician, but he took an active interest in politics through writings and public speaking. In 1877, he read a paper titled the “Chinese Question” at the Berkeley Club, where he argued in favor of restricting Chinese immigration. Boalt argued against “race antagonisms.” But his central thesis was that two “non-assimilating races” could not live harmoniously together unless one was in servitude to other. Boalt maintained that the Chinese were too dissimilar— too physically and intellectually different—from Americans to assimilate.

“The two races are further separated by fundamental differences in language, in dress, in customs, in habits, and social peculiarities and prejudices. In all these respects, the Chinese differ from us more than any known race.”

Boalt considered Chinese to be selfish and lacking altruism and said their ancient civilization had “become rotten.” But Boalt was not wholly disparaging. He admired that their laborers lived frugally, and he considered the Chinese “far advanced.” In the presence of death, he said, they displayed a “rare intrepidity and yield up their lives with a courage which we should consider heroic in one of ourselves. They excel us in industry and economy.’’

John Henry Boalt
John Henry Boalt

Ultimately, however, Boalt maintained that their differences were too great for Americans to accept and the Chinese had no inclination to assimilate into American culture—which he viewed as a requirement for all immigrants. “The facts speak for themselves. Summing them together, they simply amount to this: the Chinaman has brought China to America….Our best immigrants are those whose race distinctions are soonest obliterated.”

Frustrated with an unwillingness of Eastern politicians and jurists to restrict Chinese immigration, Boalt argued that the state legislature should “provide for taking the sense of the people of the State of California on the question of Chinese immigration, at a general election to be held for that purpose.” His hope was that the advisory election would attract attention in Washington, D.C. and provoke a response.

Boalt’s paper was hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle and received widespread attention in the state legislature. After much debate, California asked voters in the September 3, 1879 general election to state a preference for continuing or prohibiting Chinese immigration. Voters said overwhelmingly that they wanted to restrict Chinese immigration.

Three years later, in 1882, Congress passed The Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. It was signed by President Chester A. Arthur. It was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the U.S.  (The law expired ten years later, and, by 1943, Congress repealed all the exclusion acts—only to pass new means of immigration regulation.)

A death in the family

In 1890, the Boalts were drawn to the very pinnacle of San Francisco society when their only child, Alice, married Hugh Tevis, the younger son of Wells Fargo President Lloyd Tevis. The wedding was the event of the social season.

But sorrow soon fell on the families, as Alice Boalt Tevis died shortly after giving birth to a daughter. Hugh Tevis felt incapable of taking care of the infant (also named Alice Boalt Tevis), so he placed her in the care of his mother. Susan Tevis was a formidable figure in San Francisco society, and she took control of her granddaughter’s life, effectively excluding the Boalts from participation.

John and Elizabeth were, in the words of a contemporary newspaper article, “constrained to yield the guardianship and care of Alice Boalt Tevis to the Tevis family.” John and Elizabeth knew that little Alice’s fortune depended on the whims of the matriarch, and they let themselves be overshadowed in hopes that their sacrifice would result in a secure financial future for their granddaughter.

For John Boalt, the death of his only child and the separation from his only grandchild were heavy blows, and his health declined. He died on May 9, 1901 of complications from diabetes. A year and half later, little Alice died from Bright’s Disease, and Elizabeth was left completely alone.

Elizabeth Boalt immersed herself in music to fill the void in her life. She sailed to Europe to study piano in Vienna and to learn Italian in Florence and Rome. Looking for ways to commemorate her husband’s contributions to the legal profession in California, she discovered that the University of California was trying to raise $100,000 to construct a building on the Berkeley campus for the Department of Jurisprudence.

The original Boalt Hall, dedicated in 1912.
The original Boalt Hall, dedicated in 1912.

On March 3, 1906 she created a trust and placed in it two pieces of property she owned in San Francisco, with instructions that the property was to be sold and $100,000 of the proceeds given to the university to construct the Boalt Memorial Hall of Law. But only six weeks after she created the trust, the earth shook and the sky burned. Both pieces of Boalt property were within the “burned zone” — the area destroyed by the fires that followed the earthquake. The trustees could find a buyer for only one of the two lots. Even if both had been sold, the sum would not have been enough; the destruction had caused building costs to skyrocket, and the University would need much more than $100,000 to construct the new law building.

Faced with this calamity, the Department of Jurisprudence decided to construct the building in two phases, using the Boalt gift and further donations from the lawyers of California to build the first of a two-part law complex. Architect John Galen Howard designed a Beaux Arts jewel box of a building, which was dedicated in January 1912, with Mrs. Boalt present at the unveiling of the memorial to her husband. Over time, she became the much-beloved matriarch of the school.

Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt died on February 10, 1917, but not before also endowing two chairs at the law school. With no Josselyn or Boalt relatives residing in the Bay Area, the School of Jurisprudence at Berkeley stepped in to serve as her family. Her eulogy was given by Regent Charles Stetson Wheeler, and her pall bearers were UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, law school Dean William Carey Jones and four law students.

Recent history of the name

In 2008, the law school introduced a new identity, Berkeley Law, to replace Boalt Hall. The impetus for the new naming convention was to more closely link the school’s identity to that of UC Berkeley, one of the most recognizable university brands in the world. However, school leadership also forged a compromise where the names “Berkeley Law” and “Boalt” would be used together “in the family” in some circumstances such as for alumni-related branding, etc.

The “Boalt” name remains deeply infused in the school ecosystem. Many graduates consider themselves “Boalties.” More than a dozen student groups still use the name, as do the two alumni associations. The campus mail service considers the law school building to be “Boalt Hall.” Internal email lists and the staff directory use the name. And it lives on the outside of the building in two places.

In 2017, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky appointed a committee to explore continued usage of the name “Boalt,” particularly in light of the controversial views espoused by John Boalt. The committee’s recommendations were released in September 2018 and taken under consideration by the dean. On November 13, 2018, Dean Chemerinsky accepted the committee’s recommendations.