A student-led effort to change the name of Portland's Woodrow Wilson High School is gaining momentum within the school district.
After an online petition gathered more than 2,000 signatures in a week, students addressed the Portland School Board Tuesday, June 23, urging board members to consider revamping the school's identity. Students and teachers say the school's namesake was a racist president who, despite being considered a progressive at the time, also was known for promoting white supremacy and racial segregation, even after the United States had moved away from segregation.
Requests for the name change have surfaced in the past, but students and teachers say this is the first time the district has been responsive to the idea.
Mia Sedory will be a senior at Wilson High School next year. She said she's been on board with the name change since learning about Woodrow Wilson in a social justice class during her sophomore year.
"We were talking about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, and we talked about Woodrow Wilson and his values," Sedory said. "I learned about how he supported the KKK and resegregated the nation. (Segregation) was getting deconstructed, and then he reimplemented it in federal housing policies and in education. He was bad, even for his time."
Sedory is a member of her school's Asian Pacific Islander club, as well as AWARE — Allied Wilson Advocates for Racial Equity. She penned a letter to Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, outlining the case for the name change.
"How can we have a school named after a president who resegregated the nation, stopped efforts in racial equality and supported the KKK?" Sedory asked in her letter. "Is our school keeping its name to avoid friction? Is that what 'The Wilson Way' has become: taking the path of least resistance, rather than the path of justice?"
She and other students say Portland Public Schools, through its policies and buildings, should work to lift up students of color, and consider the impact that names and images on school buildings can have on those students.
Wilson student Hui Hui Hutchinson addressed the school board June 23, saying he and other students have experienced racism at the high school, and maintaining the current name only further alienates minority students in a predominantly white school.
"My siblings and I have been advocating for the mural of Wilson to be removed and the namesake to be changed since moving to Portland in 2018," Hutchinson told the school board. "Some say (Wilson) should be judged according to the times, but racism can never be ignored, must always be corrected and never excused. All PPS school buildings should be renamed if the name reflects a history or practice of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and any and all the other isms. We want a school name and murals that reflect the values we aspire to see in the world."
The request comes amid a growing movement nationwide to remove statues and other homages to political figures whose pasts included owning slaves or promoting racist ideals. On June 14, a statue of Thomas Jefferson was toppled in front of Jefferson High School in North Portland. A few days later, on June 18, protesters set fire to and tore down a George Washington statue in front of the German American Society building at Northeast 57th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard.
Other schools — most recently Monmouth University in New Jersey — have removed Wilson's name from their buildings.
The letter, petition and pleas to the school district seem to be working.
Portland Public Schools administrators and the Wilson High Principal, Filip Hristic, are coordinating next steps in what could be a community engagement process to consider changing the school's name.
"I'm feeling optimistic, because (Principal Hristic) is in support of it and he's already written a letter to the superintendent making a formal request for a name change," Ellen Whatmore, a Wilson teacher who helped create the online name change petition, said Wednesday, June 24. "It can't happen if only one party or group is asking for it. It has to be a collaborative community effort."
The district released a statement, saying it's listening to student requests and concerns.
"We know the renaming of school buildings is part of an important local, national and global conversation," Public Information Officer Karen Werstein said. "We stand ready to listen to our communities and, in particular, our students to help guide us forward. We know it could take some time to ensure we have engaged student voices in the process. PPS remains committed to racial equity and social justice and ensuring student voice is at the center."
It's unclear how quickly the change would take place, if approved, But until then, district officials have committed to removing a mural of Woodrow Wilson at the high school before school starts in the fall.
Students suggest that, to avoid the costly process of replacing every identifying feature around the school, the school can instead "reclaim" the Wilson name, by naming it after a different person with the same last name. Suggested alternatives include Harriet Wilson, the first African American to publish a book in North America.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.