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Wilson High School should be rebranded in honor of a woman whose name bears the greatest meaning

One name stands out on the list of five put forward by the Woodrow Wilson High School renaming committee.

To discern the choice, consider what's in a name.

The task is finding a name that will endure and serve us and future generations even as the old name, a product of its time, did not.

Wilson High School was built in 1954, when the sacrifices of World War II and the fear of a nuclear apocalypse were very real. Woodrow Wilson, the school's namesake, had been perhaps the 20th Century's foremost proponent of lasting peace after the savage Great War, 1914-1918.

But sadly, in those post WW II years, the nation's awareness of its racial sins had been largely hidden from or ignored by most except its victims. Wilson's own racism also had been unrecognized by the vast majority.

Today we are just beginning to come to terms with our slave-owning "founding fathers," Jefferson, Washington, Madison as well as those who "discovered" the "new" world like Robert Gray whose name is attached to our Hillsdale middle school. And Columbus who remains acclaimed in the name of the great river that so shapes life here.

The names recently put forth by the Wilson renaming committee speak to our own times and needs: The Black women on this exclusive list were each leaders in their own ways in the nation's never-ending struggle for justice and freedom.

And so we consider their contributions in the context of our own time of deep reckoning.

How to choose one name among them? Beatrice Morrow Cannady was a founder of the Oregon chapter of the NAACP and the first Black woman to practice law in the state; Mercedes Deiz was the first Black judge in Oregon; Ida B. Wells was a national renowned Black journalist and civil rights advocate; Harriet E. Wilson is believed to be the first African-American woman to publish a novel in the United States; Sojourner Truth, born into slavery, became an outspoken, charismatic champion of emancipation and women's rights.

I firmly believe the key to the proper choice of a name resides in the names themselves and in what the words communicate to future generations. The names of human beings on public structures and institutions rarely accomplish what we intend. Indeed, they keep us from commemorating and communicating what those honored stood for — their accomplishments and values.

Some whose names persist on schools, parks and streets have been utterly forgotten. Who were Fanno and Stephens of our creeks, and Barbur and Bertha of our boulevards, and Tryon and DeWitt of our parks? Those names are now mere sounds without meaning.

I contend that we should look beyond the names of human beings, as distinguished as they may be. Instead we should use the very names of the values they believed in. Words like peace, justice and — yes — truth.

Which brings us to Sojourner Truth.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS - Sojourner TruthOf those on the list, only Truth's name speaks directly to what she believed in. In fact, of the five, she is the only one to have purposely abandoned the name given her at her birth — Isabella Bomfree. Born into bondage, she eventually chose a new name emblematic of her freedom. As a deeply religious person, she well knew the words of the Scripture "...the truth will set you free."

No wonder she chose Truth as her name. As she gained prominence, she must have hoped that after death, her name alone would carry forward her cause.

May the name Truth High School do the same.

Note too, that Sojourner Truth also gave herself her "given" name. The definition of "Sojourner" reveals yet another dimension of this remarkable woman. The name "Sojourner" invites us to consider what it means to live together in the brief time we are given. It speaks to urgency, compassion and harmony.

It could remind students of the fleeting, yet formative, opportunity Sojourner Truth High School offers them.

A footnote: As we embark on change, we should also rid the high school of its mascots: the iron-clad, helmeted, bellicose Trojans.

Replace the Trojans with Sojourners — Sojourners for Truth and, yes, freedom.

Rick Seifert lives in Southwest Portland.


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