Fresno State's student-run newspaper

The Collegian

Fresno State's student-run newspaper

The Collegian

Fresno State's student-run newspaper

The Collegian

A memorial plaque is located on the ground in the Roger Tatarian Memorial Plaza at Fresno State outside of the McKee Fisk building. (Zaeem Shaikh/The Collegian)

Fresno elementary school renamed after renowned Armenian journalist

Following a tense debate, the Fresno Unified school board voted to rename Forkner Elementary after H. Roger Tatarian, a Fresno State alumnus and former journalism professor, on Wednesday.

The board’s vote was unanimous to rename the school. Tatarian is the first Armenian to have a school named after him in the Fresno district.

The school was previously named after J.C. Forkner, who was famously known for developing Fig Garden, which spans 12,000 acres. But journalist and author Mark Arax discovered controversial history in Forkner’s past that sparked a debate in the summer to rename the elementary school in northwest Fresno. 

Arax uncovered that Forkner separated and excluded various races from homeownership in parts of Fresno. These restrictions eventually developed into a plan of redlining and residential segregation.­

In an advertisement promoting Fig Garden, Arax said in a Fresno Bee editorial that Forkner wrote “those who buy [here] will be fully protected from resale of property to undesirables.” 

Paragraphs in real estate documents uncovered by Arax in the editorial state that Forkner said properties could not be sold or leased to anyone who wasn’t white.

A few weeks after Arax gave this evidence to the school board and published the editorial, the district received a letter on June 21, requesting the name of the school be changed. The discussions developed over the next several months, emblematic of the nationwide debate to remove signs of historical figures who are symbols of systemic racism. 

Following a Sept. 8 meeting, the board put the renaming of the school as an action item for discussion and approval on Wednesday. Feedback was mixed among community members.­

While the name change was cheered on by many, including those in the Armenian community, parents, teachers and administrators tied to Forkner in attendance didn’t view it in the same light. 

Jessica Bedwell, a teacher at Forkner Elementary, said the history uncovered by Arax is an embarrassment to her city and school district, but it should not be met with a knee-jerk reaction rooted in politics.­

“Singling out one school over a large school district sets the precedent that this board and the district will randomly and inconsistently consider the renaming of schools without a deeper analysis by a committee,” she said.

Others echoed her opinion. Arielle Meisner Dipinto said she walked onto Forkner Elementary as a kindergarten student two decades ago. She said that, although Forkner made mistakes, he still made major advances for the community, saying the name change would teach students “cancel culture.”

Ryan Duff, the principal of Forkner Elementary, was not opposed to the idea of renaming the school. However, he was opposed to the timing of the debate, saying it has become a huge distraction and causing a great deal of emotional stress on campus. 

“It’s very hard telling a little 7-year-old [with] tears in his eyes why his school name might be changed,” Duff said. “They absolutely love their school. It has nothing to do with the person it was named after.”

Several other members in the audience spoke in support of Tatarian and denounced Forkner. 

Danielle Shapazian, a 40-year resident of northwest Fresno, said she never met Tatarian but knew he understood the value of education from reading his newspaper columns. Marshall Moushigian said Tatarian is a role model while nobody has said that about Forkner. 

“I’m sure this entire board and everybody in this room and everybody in this city cannot live with separating and excluding people based on their race nor should we continue honoring somebody at an elementary school whose claim to fame or infamy was just that,” Moushigian said. 

Arax was one of the last members of the audience and defended his findings.

“We’ve been doing this for six months… This is not about culture wars, masks, vaccines,” Arax said. “This is not Fox News. This is about history, J.C. Forkner is the most consequential racist in Fresno history.”

Arax added that the restrictive real estate covenants put in place by Forkner affected his own family, and also countless Black, Asian and Latino families. He urged Duff and Bedwell to use this as a teaching moment to see the damage Forkner did to Fresno.

Following a motion to rename the school by Trustee Keshia Thomas, the board unanimously voted for the name change. Officials weren’t clear exactly when the name change would occur, but staff recommended it in the summer. 

It comes months after several Armenians in the community asked the district officials to name Fresno Unified’s newest campus at Ventura and 10th, which is projected to open in 2023.

District staff launched a survey for the community to give a list of names and geographical locations for the school. The survey had over 1,600 submissions, and Tatarian had almost 1,000 nominations while the next highest name — longtime Fresno Unified administrator Dolphas Trotter — had a little more than 100 votes.

Instead, the board voted 5-2 on May 19 to name the school after Murray and Francine Farber, who are both known for giving thousands of dollars to local education according to The Fresno Bee

Members of the Fresno State community praised the board’s decision including Fresno State journalism professor Jim Boren.

“In my almost five decades in the news business, I never met someone who had a stronger

impact on our profession than Roger Tatarian,” Boren said. “He had a high ethical standard that was not subject to compromise, and he brought out the best in every writer as he guided them in developing their stories.”

Fresno State Professor and Berberian Coordinator of the Armenian Studies Program Barlow Der Mugrdechian said the decision by the board “was long overdue, considering the long history of Armenians in the San Joaquin Valley and their many contributions to the success of the Valley.”

Who was Roger Tatarian?

Tatarian was born in Fresno and became interested in journalism when he was a high school student at Longfellow Junior High School. He graduated from Fresno State College in June 1938 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. 

After graduating from Fresno State, Tatarian began working as a reporter for United Press International (UPI), a news organization that rivaled the Associated Press in the 20th century, covering stories throughout the world. At UPI, Tatarian held several roles: general news manager, UPI bureau chief for London and Rome and news editor in Washington D.C. 

He eventually became the vice president and editor-in-chief in 1967 and then retired from the global news organization in 1972. After leaving a career in news, Tatarian returned to Fresno State and taught journalism for 15 years.

In the final years of his life, Tatarian wrote a weekly column for The Fresno Bee and served as a consultant to newspapers. Boren said Tatarian was a mentor to him during this time since he was also working there. 

“We had coffee several times a week, and I never left a conversation without learning something important from him,” Boren said. 

In 1995 — the same year he passed away at the age of 78 — Fresno State established the Roger Tatarian Endowed Chair in journalism. The Roger Tatarian Journalism Grant was also established in his honor.

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