Janss brothers’ history of discrimination prompts call for changing name of steps
More than 2,000 people signed a petition to rename Janss Steps, which is named after Harold Janss and Edwin Janss Sr. who barred people of color from owning properties or businesses in Westwood Village. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Kaitlin Browne
July 6, 2020 8:12 p.m.
This post was updated July 7 at 1:40 p.m.
A petition to rename Janss Steps received over 2,000 signatures as of July 6.
The petition states that UCLA should rename the steps after an alumnus who changed the world for the better, rather than someone who contributed to institutional racism.
Many students don’t know that the Janss brothers have a history of racial discrimination, said Michael Penny, an alumnus who started the petition in June.
The University of California named the famous 87-step staircase after Harold Janss and Edwin Janss Sr. after they sold around 380 acres of land in Westwood under market value to the University, which allowed the UC to build UCLA.
Janss Investment Company, which the brothers owned at the time, developed Westwood Village and used racial covenants to ban people of color from owning properties or businesses in the area in the 1920s.
The company also denied Chi Alpha Delta, UCLA’s first Asian interest sorority, from purchasing a house on Hilgard Avenue in 1938. The sorority does not have a house in Westwood to this day.
In Janss Investment Co. v. Walden in 1925, the California Supreme Court upheld that the racial covenants were lawful. The United States Supreme Court overturned the legality of racial covenants in 1948 with Shelley v. Kraemer.
Janss Corp., the last of the family’s firms, was liquidated in 1995.
A Step for Change
Many students learn about the myth surrounding Janss Steps during New Student Orientation, during which incoming students sign up for classes and explore campus.
It is campus myth that the Janss brothers, who the steps are named after, asked to be buried under the stairs, Penny said.
This is the image most people have of the Janss brothers, he said.
Penny said he intentionally excluded a suggestion for whom the steps should be renamed after because he wanted people with an extensive knowledge of UCLA’s history and the petition’s signatories to have a say.
Some student signees suggested that Janss Steps should be renamed after Martin Luther King Jr., who gave a speech addressing segregation and racial injustice on the steps in 1965.
Other students who supported the petition proposed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a former UCLA basketball player and social justice advocate.
Jason Zamarrón, a UCLA graduate, said UCLA should rename the steps after Reginaldo Francisco del Valle, who helped secure UCLA’s location in Los Angeles by introducing legislation in 1881 to establish the Branch State Normal School, which would later become UCLA.
The North Westwood Neighborhood Council approved a resolution to rename the steps at its July 1 meeting. It recommended that UCLA replace the name with an individual who accurately represents UCLA’s mission and values.
The NWWNC also advocated for UCLA to reach out to community members for input on whom to rename the steps after.
Furkan Yalcin, an alumnus and NWWNC Outreach and Communications committee member, said the council decided to endorse the petition after seeing it.
Although renaming the steps is important for progress, UCLA should still do more to support students of color, said Dahlia Castillo, a second-year undeclared student.
“While this is not the final step, it can be a good step in the right direction,” she said.
Larry Janss, the grandson of Edwin Janss Sr., initially brushed off the idea of renaming Janss Steps when he heard about the petition, but he said he quickly became empathetic to the idea after he read an article describing why monuments honoring racist figures should be renamed.
Larry Janss said he acknowledges his ancestors’ racist history. However, he added he wants people to associate the steps with the social justice efforts he and his father, Edwin Janss Jr., funded with the Janss Foundation, rather than Edwin Sr. and Harold Janss’ racism.
The Janss Foundation funded social equality and human rights organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank, and the Bodacious Buggerilla, a Black activist theater group. Edwin Janss Jr. also funded the Black Panther Party at one point, Larry Janss said in an email statement.
His family’s philanthropy over recent generations used the wealth from his ancestors, which is both ironic and a source of pride, Larry Janss said.
“The irony is thick,” he said. “The endowment for the foundation, who has been fighting for over a half century for social justice and equality, came out of the wealth that was created through these racist covenants.”
UCLA said it is currently reviewing the petition and is committed to maintaining an inclusive campus, said UCLA spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez in an emailed statement.