Rename Jefferson High School? Citizens debate pros, cons
Would a school by any other name still be the "School of Champions"?
That might be the way Shakespeare would phrase the question put to a gathering of the Humboldt Neighborhood Association Monday, Jan. 29.
About 60 people gathered at the North Portland Library, next door to Jefferson High School, for a thoughtful and, at times, emotional debate on whether to change the high school's name.
Proponents of the change say that Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, is remembered for his soaring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," but he also bought and sold about 600 people and wrote shockingly negative opinions about African-Americans. For some, the fact that a school that for decades has been the only majority-black high school in the state is named after this particular founding father smacks of irony and taints the school with subtle and systemic oppression.
But many people — particularly those who attend or graduated from Jefferson High School — say that the students have reclaimed the name and imbued it with pride and success.
"It's disgusting that we have a statue outside of him, but once you go inside the school, it has an entirely new meaning," said Sarah Steele, a Jefferson High School junior and Black Student Union president. "We have changed the name and made it our own."
The neighborhood association forum got a boost of publicity after a related complaint about the Quakers mascot at Franklin High School reached the Portland Public Schools board in January. The school board is looking at whether current policy is enough to start a process to change the name of the mascot, or if new policy language needs to be written. Any procedure the school board develops may be used to take a look at many other controversial school property names.
Board Chair Julia Brim Edwards is also on the Board of Trustees at Oregon State University, which recently went through a similar community process of deciding whether to continue honoring controversial historical figures with campus building names.
The movement is nationwide, with debates springing up everywhere over statues, namesakes and other symbols with ties to oppression.
Facilitated by Steven Holt, doctor of humanities and owner of Try Excellence consulting firm, Monday's debate — which was intended to be an opening conversation to see how much community support existed for change — was civil and wide-ranging.
Testimony was not split along racial lines; white people and black people alike advocated for either changing or keeping the name.
Clifford Walker, a Humboldt historian who has been pushing for a name change for years, said he felt the divide was actually along educational lines: those who knew what Jefferson did and those who only had a vague understanding of his life and deeper ties to the school community.
Brian Murtagh, a North Portland resident, said that was the case for him. As a young architect, he always admired Jefferson — until he learned how Jefferson treated people as commodities. "(I found) out how wrong I was about him," Murtagh said.
André Lightsey-Walker, a Grant High School and University of Oregon graduate now working at Metro, helped to put on the debate. He feels strongly that the name is "problematic" and that the community has an opportunity to add a new chapter. "Today is a chance to take some of that power back and decide what kind of world we want to live in."
But in the end, a straw poll of attendees found a lack of consensus. Thirteen were in favor of keeping the name, 22 would like to change it and 15 couldn't decide one way or the other. Some raised their hands for all three answers and some not at all.
Ross Daniels, who came to the debate from the nearby Woodlawn neighborhood, said a better question would be to ask what sort of name the community would pick today.
"If we were to have a new school, what would be a good name?" Daniels asked. "Would you find some old, dead, rich white dude who had slaves? No, you probably wouldn't."
He proposed an essay contest to determine a new name and to use the opportunity for history education.
Throughout the evening, possible replacements were floated, such as abolitionists, local historical figures, returning the school to its original moniker: Albina High School, and even Barack Obama High School.
Organizers said they were not disappointed in the result of the vote. Rather, they seemed pleased that so many people considered the issue and cared enough to show up in person.
"That's very, very special to me to have real, intimate human interaction," Lightsey-Walker said, urging people to attend the next meeting on Feb. 14. "I can't be disappointed. This is not about my view; it's about the community's view."