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What's in a name? Too much, teacher says

Teacher, teens want to rename high school, say Wilson was racist


TRIBUNE PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - Woodrow Wilson High School, opened in 1956, is in Southwest Portland's Hillsdale neighborhood. A teacher and some students are building an effort to rename the school, saying the World War I-era president was racist.

It’s a provocative statement, but even more so when you consider the tweet came from a history teacher at Wilson High School.

“(Expletive) Wilson and any school he’s named after,” tweeted Hyung Nam with a link to a Politico magazine article detailing Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of "Birth of a Nation," a racist feature-length epic silent film, in 1915.

With the successful effort to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds, activists across the nation are calling for renamings of buildings, landmarks and even lakes.

But Nam’s tweet was not a spontaneous comment. He has railed against his high school’s namesake all spring.

“We'd have to be ignorant about history to continue to affiliate ourselves with this man,” Nam wrote in an email to Wilson High School staff April 22. He cited a quote from the World War I-era president: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

“It’s so ironic to have a school named after someone who would say that about education and public education,” Nam says. PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - Hyung Nam, a social studies teacher at Wilson High School, says the school should be renamed.

He has interested a few students in his cause.

Maddy VanSpeybroeck is an incoming junior and co-founder of the WHS Feminist Student Union.

“The idea of our schools being named after a person with these ideals just doesn’t sit right with a lot of people,” VanSpeybroeck says, “especially as feminist ideals and racial ideals are becoming more something our nation is talking about right now.”

She says the effort has encountered “school spirit-related” and budget-related concerns, such as the cost to modify signage and sports uniforms.

“I definitely hear what they are saying, but there are always going to be roadblocks and budget issues, and you just have to prioritize your morals over those kinds of things,” VanSpeybroeck says.

As an example of an alternative, VanSpeybroeck says the students like the idea of a woman of color, such as Ida B. Wells, a political figure who was born a slave in 1862.

Kendall Berry, co-founder of the WHS’s new Black Student Union and a recent Young, Gifted and Black honoree, also is supportive of the effort, which has taken a break until school gets back in session.

Berry says he wanted to start the Black Student Union after attending a party with Jefferson High School BSU President Sekai Edwards where the n-word was thrown around. He says he thinks the conversation to change the name of the school has already changed the tone in history classes, with students now mocking the former president.

“I think it could open up the community’s eyes to a lot of the racism that we don’t really know about,” he says.

The journey to a name

Nam says so far he has received the silent treatment from administrators.

District spokeswoman Christine Miles says the foul-worded tweet was inappropriate.

“I don’t think anybody took that seriously because of the language,” Miles says. She says the process to change a school’s name would have to involve a lot of community outreach and support.

Rudy Rudolph, a longtime Portland Public Schools administrator, says the district developed a policy in 2005 to name schools and has used the intensive community outreach process several times, such as in the 2006 naming of Rosa Parks Elementary School and the 2010 renaming of Clarendon-Portsmouth (K-8) School to César Chávez (K-8) School.

The policy requires school board approval of a request to the Director of Family and School Engagement, Richard Gilliam, under the Communications Department, with documentation of a public outreach effort.

Nam says he forwarded his request to the Office of Equity and Partnerships.

“If there is any real commitment to honor diversity and equity, I would hope that our leaders would step forward and have a dialogue about this,” Nam says.

One leader, outgoing board member Greg Belisle, says he would welcome a conversation to change the names of some Portland schools.

During a board discussion on an effort to rename buildings or centers in the Faubion (Pre-K-8) School massive rebuild project, Belisle urged the district and Lutheran partner Concordia University to select names that would not offend.

“This brought up for me a lot of questions about current names of a lot of our current buildings, which may not feel very comfortable to large portions of our community,” he said. “Some of our buildings are named after people whose histories are, again, not too so pleasant to many of our families.”

Belisle said later that he would be interested in hearing a proposal.

“I think it’s worth our time to think about it,” Belisle said.

Randy Barnett, a law professor at Washington D.C.’s Georgetown University, says Wilson should be at the top of the list of any effort to rename government buildings. Barnett, who recently wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post on the subject, says Wilson resegregated the federal government, removing black people from supervisory roles; prosecuted antiwar protestors, such as famed union leader Eugene Debs; and signed legislation to sterilize those with mental illness or deficiencies.

“Truthfully, he was a bad guy, but that’s not the reason I’m saying this. I’m doing it because he held very, very repugnant views and he acted on them,” Barnett says. “It’s very difficult to see how one would honor that. What exactly is he being honored for?”


Shasta@PortlandTribune.com
541-285-3614
twitter.com/ShastaKM

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