The old Madison campus, still bearing the name James Madison High School. Both Madison and Wilson recently underwent name changes to separate themselves from racist, hateful legacies. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As the impacts of Black Lives Matter protests continue to be felt around the country, many symbols of racist leaders have been removed in an attempt to shift away from the glorification of intolerant historical figures. Portland is no exception: after decades of living under names that honored racist individuals, two Portland Public Schools (PPS) high schools have changed their labels. In the past two months, the former Woodrow Wilson High School has become Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School, and James Madison High School has taken on the name Leodis V. McDaniel High School. Both of these renaming processes originated from student and community leaders, particularly people of color, who found the previous names disrespectful.

Ida B. Wells’s new name, selected in late January, commemorates an African-American journalist and civil rights leader whose use of reporting as an anti-racist tool and advocacy for inclusive feminism resonated with students and community members. Senya Scott (11), an Ida B. Wells student who helped spearhead the process and sat on the school’s renaming committee, explained why she believed Wells-Barnett was the best option. “We wanted someone we could have pride in the name of, someone that we trusted left a legacy that impacted people positively to this day. So Ida B. Wells was a great fit for that…I love journalism, and the fact that she was able to use that to liberate herself and the people around her, and even people to this day, like me and other Black women in America, is just incredible.” Wells-Barnett was also a contemporary of the school’s former namesake, Woodrow Wilson, and confronted him on multiple occasions calling out various racist policies he propagated during his presidency. Wilson was, as Scott describes, “a president that didn’t only turn a blind eye… to racial injustice, but helped elevate it.” He defended Jim Crow laws, glorified the KKK, and willfully discriminated against African-American college students while president of Princeton University. Shifting from a man who committed those egregious actions to civil rights activist Wells-Barnett was certainly a dramatic change, and one that Scott believes should have happened long ago. “It’s definitely years overdue… He didn’t represent the people at the school, he didn’t represent the BIPOC students and staff at the school, and we want to be represented.” 

Following Ida B. Wells’ renaming, staff and students at Madison picked up steam in their two-year effort to separate their school from the legacy of America’s fourth president. Madison was a slaveholder whose views reinforced the power of early America’s wealthy, landowning class. Their new name, Leodis V. McDaniel High School, honors a former Madison principal and activist whose role as an educator made him a strong symbol of Black leadership in the area during his time at the school in the 1980s. Treothe Bullock, a science teacher at McDaniel, spoke of the former principal. “His legacy is a living legacy, even though he’s passed. It’s very much rooted in our community, and it’s extra special that he’s really been a significant figure in the story of Madison.” When selecting this name, community members and those on the renaming committee went through an extensive process, considering many different titles. “The Grand Ronde nation [a local group of confederated tribes] offered a couple of names to us for consideration, and the Japanese-American community offered some names too. There was a real difficulty for the committee in making a final decision, but I think ultimately it was a good decision,” Bullock said. He was especially proud of the students behind the push and mentioned that McDaniel’s Peace and Justice Club had played a large role in the removal of the hateful name. Students brought a spirit that Bullock valued greatly, saying, “I think a lot of adults have been frozen for different reasons, and aren’t really responding to that kind of legacy… With students, it’s like a springing of fresh energy that is so needed. It’s such a relief.”

These steps certainly mark an important stride towards inclusivity. Separating institutions from overtly racist figures and turning towards symbols that respect all identities is valuable. It can help all community members feel as though they belong in these spaces. As a teacher, Bullock can tell there’s still work to be done at McDaniel.“There’s all kinds of privileging of whiteness that we’re very conscious of in the way education is structured… The name change is part of a new level of being able to speak directly about white supremacy culture, being able to confront and dismantle it.” 

Across town, at Ida B. Wells-Barnett, it’s a similar story. Senya Scott has experienced firsthand what it’s like to be a student of color there and knows that combating hate will be an ongoing process. “In all honesty, I think that this is just the first step,” she told me. “It’s a long-awaited first step, but it’s just the first step towards ultimately making the school more racially literate and inclusive, a school that acknowledges how the intersectionalities of POC students affect our everyday lives.” 

Moving away from racist ideas depends on acknowledging the realities of our past, Scott added. Historical instances of racism in Portland often go unacknowledged, from the exclusion of Black settlers in the original Oregon Constitution to the repeated displacement and mistreatment of Native tribes in the area. Today, Portlanders of color face unique challenges, and discussions like the ones that led to these name changes are more vital than ever. As Scott puts it, “These are conversations that we need to have. There are spaces that need to be made to keep POC students feeling safe and supported.” Scott’s biggest hope for the name change is that it doesn’t become another piece of performative activism, that the Ida B. Wells-Barnett community will live up to the label they’ve chosen for themselves. “The name of the school is important, and it sets an example,” she said. “But at the end of the day if we’re not acting out those ideas, then what’s the point?” Through advocacy and engagement, students like Scott and countless others are leading a charge towards a more equitable future, one where schools are not only free of hateful symbols but of hate as well.

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