Portland Public Schools Will Reevaluate All Building Names, Starting With Woodrow Wilson High School

“That the district is responding now tells me that George Floyd’s death matters. The protests we are seeing in the streets every night are sending a really strong message.”

A custodian washes graffiti from the base of a Thomas Jefferson statue. (Joy Bogdan)

By spring of 2021, Woodrow Wilson High School will have a new name.

At a July 14 meeting, the Portland School Board announced it would change the name of the Southwest Portland high school. Wilson High received its name in 1954, but in 2020 its namesake is under new scrutiny, as a segregationist and supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Now the Southwest Portland community's calls for Woodrow Wilson's name to be removed from the school are being answered. Wilson is the first Portland Public Schools building to get a new name, but the School Board says it plans to reevaluate the names of six other PPS schools and facilities, including buildings named after President Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves, and Joseph Lane, first governor of the Oregon Territory who also supported the Confederacy.

"Black folks have been asking for justice," says School Board member Michelle DePass. "That the district is responding now tells me that George Floyd's death matters. The protests we are seeing in the streets every night are sending a really strong message."

The Oregonian first reported on the Wilson name change last week. For months, students like Wilson High junior Miro Cox championed the change.

Cox tells WW when he began to do his own research on the man his school was named after, he wanted to start a discussion about changing whom his school honored.

"Being a person of color is awkward," Cox says. With black students making up only 6% of Wilson's student body, "it's always in the back of your head, like are these people going to push back?"

Cox also mentioned a racist incident last year when a white student called a black student a racial slur, leading to a fight. Cox is worried another incident like that will occur as the school changes names. "I just hope that this helps bring change," Cox says.

So far, the school district appears ready for a large-scale reevaluation. "I am very supportive of the district undertaking a comprehensive review of not just our facilities," says School Board member Julia Brim-Edwards.

Brim-Edwards was on the board when Franklin High School changed its mascot from the Quakers to the Lighting last year after complaints about the appearance of a public school having a religious affiliation. That process looked very similar to how the School Board has agreed to go about changing the name of Wilson High School. Over the next several months, students, alumni and other members of the community will settle on a few possible names, and then the board will have final say what goes up on the building.

Board member and former chair Amy Kohnstamm says she enthusiastically supports renaming school buildings, but says not everyone in the district is equally enthusiastic. "We have really passionate alumni in this city, and so I think there will definitely be a lot of different opinions in this process," adds Kohnstamm. "Many of the Jefferson alumni, including Black alumni, do feel attached to the name of the school."

One solution—proposed at the July 14 board meeting and supported by board members and students alike—is to rename Wilson High School after Stephanie Wilson, an astronaut who has spent more time in space than any other Black person in history. That way, the school can maintain the history it has with the name while also standing for what it believes in, says School Board member Eilidh Lowery.

When this topic last came up in 2017, it took a back seat to other issues, district leaders say. "There are many, many things that need to be addressed by PPS, and it's not possible to tackle everything at once," says board member and former vice chair Rita Moore. But that has changed.

"This is a country that was founded by people who enslaved other people and committed genocides on multiple occasions," Moore says, "and those realities have not been sufficiently acknowledged within the United States."

None of these changes are going to happen overnight. Some board members believe the district should not name schools after historic figures, arguing it should name them after places. Moore disagrees: "I want to believe that there are people who have existed in the United States that are worth honoring."

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