Gisele Lamarre, NBC News, March 14, 2021
Senya Scott immediately wanted to disassociate herself from the name of her school in Portland, Oregon, when she started her freshman year at Woodrow Wilson High School.
It was offensive to Scott, 16, who is Black, that the school would honor Wilson, who in 1913 mandated the federal workforce be segregated and supported the Ku Klux Klan. She felt unrepresented in the predominantly white school and believed most of her peers were unaware that Black students felt excluded from the rest of the student body.
When the movement to rename schools took off across the country after George Floyd’s death last May at the hands of Minneapolis police, Scott and other students saw a way to bring their newfound activism close to home by pushing to remove from their halls of education the monikers of slave-owning presidents, white supremacist sympathizers and Confederate leaders.
They found support among district officials and school board members who were prompted by Black Lives Matter protests to re-examine history through a racial lens.
Yet, nearly a year after Floyd’s death and as an officer accused of killing him stands trial, the debate over renaming schools remains impassioned, with proponents saying the old names are intolerable amid a nationwide racial reckoning and opponents arguing such moves are attacks on their history and culture.
Under pressure from students, parents and community members, Portland Public Schools eventually formed a naming committee that Scott joined as a student representative.
The final list of proposed names included the author Maya Angelou, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. But in the end, a civil rights activist won out. Next fall, Scott and her classmates will walk through the doors of Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School, named for a Black journalist who exposed the brutal reality of lynchings in America and co-founded the NAACP.
A second Portland high school will have a new name in the fall when James Madison High becomes Leodis McDaniel High, honoring a beloved former principal.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said 103 K-12 public schools in the U.S. are named for Confederate military figures. Seven of them are in Jacksonville, Florida, where the Duval County School Board is in the midst of a nine-step process to decide whether any school names should be changed.
Two other schools named for the French explorer and colonizer Jean Ribault are also being considered. With nine possible changes in Jacksonville, a city named for President Andrew Jackson, who owned about 150 slaves, passions have been high. That’s the case at Robert E. Lee High School, where the student body is 72 percent Black and 14 percent white.
Alumni who want to preserve the name of their alma mater have attended school board meetings and held protests in front of the school. Joey Stevens, who graduated in 1984, said he sees the renaming effort as a challenge from outsiders to the region’s history and culture.
In nearby Montgomery, Alabama, another Robert E. Lee High School is at the center of a debate over changing its name and removing a statue honoring the Confederate general from the campus. A petition that circulated last summer collected 30,000 signatures in support of both proposals.
Montgomery was the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and the high school was a part of that history. In 1955, Robert E. Lee High opened as an all-white school and did not integrate until 1964. Today, the student body is 91 percent Black.