Our View: Jefferson name debate offers vital lessons
When Portland's Albina High School was renamed in 1908, it's safe to assume few people were thinking about Thomas Jefferson's slaves. And if they were, they certainly weren't talking about them.
Rather, the new name of the North Portland High School honored a founding father who served as our nascent nation's third president — and one who had a key role in Oregon history. After all, the sponsor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition had been honored a 100 years earlier by the renaming of Mount Vancouver.
Mount Jefferson, in turn, lent the name to a central Oregon county in 1914.
A century later, there's a greater recognition of the contradictions in a man who could give voice to the revolutionary notion that "all men are created equal" while simultaneously owning hundreds of slaves on his sprawling Virginia plantation.
Some residents of the Humboldt neighborhood have long wanted to change the name of their local high school. Last week, the neighborhood association hosted a community meeting to discuss the idea.
For some people, this conversation is political correctness gone wild. We disagree with that characterization, but also think this is an opportunity for a full-fledged discussion of what a name truly means. Over the past 113 years, the words "Jefferson High School" have come to form an identity quite separate from the building's namesake.
It's understandable that the Jefferson label causes concern in a school with 45 percent African-American enrollment. It's also understandable that many of those same students — as well as alumni — have an emotional attachment to the school's name and want to retain the community identity it conveys.
That was one of the points raised during the recent community meeting, which was remarkable for its civility. Thanks to facilitator Steven Holt, something all-too-rare happened at the meeting. Coming together to discuss a racially charged issue, 60-some people had a real discussion. There was no resolution, but the conversation will continue next Wednesday, Feb. 14.
Our hope is that as the process moves forward, people will acknowledge that those who have been honored in statues and names reflect the complexity of human nature. Eleven U.S. presidents other than Jefferson also owned slaves, including two (Grant and Madison) whose names are on other Portland high schools.
This discussion of historic names is appropriate, and also not at all unprecedented. For example, after years of voicing complaints, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation finally got the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to drop the slur "Squaw" from 13 natural features in Grant County in 2016.
In an unrelated but also highly sensitive issue involving Native American names, the Oregon Legislature tried to mandate that all Native mascots be banned from public schools.
Fortunately, some school officials and tribal leaders had a better idea: Turn a negative into a positive. Tribal members have been meeting with seven local school districts to come to agreement on acceptable ways to use culturally sensitive Native American mascots. In the process, students in those districts are learning about the history of those tribes in their communities.
There's a lesson to be learned from that exercise. In this case, when dealing in a modern context with significant-but-flawed figures from the past, we'd like to use their lives to create a more nuanced and truthful accounting of our history.
The discussions at Jefferson may or may not result in a new name at the high school, but they also can serve an important educational function, particularly in Oregon, which entered the union in 1859 as a "whites-only" state. Dealing with our history in a frank manner is just as important as deciding whether a century-old name is still appropriate for the community it serves.