PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The adoption of a new mascot for Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School was put on pause, after concerns about potential connotations of lynching.
After adopting a new namesake earlier this year, the Southwest Portland high school also wants to ditch its Trojan mascot. A committee comprised of students, staff and community members suggested the evergreens as the school’s new mascot.
“Evergreens are characterized by the life-giving force of their foliage, the strength of their massive trunk, and the depth of their roots—in an individual tree and as a forest of trees,” Ellen Whatmore, a teacher and mascot committee member at Wells-Barnett High School said, reading from a resolution. “They provide shelter and sustenance. They have histories that preclude us and will continue in perpetuity after we are no more.”
But just before the Portland Public Schools Board of Education’s vote to approve the new mascot Tuesday, March 30, Director Michelle DePass shared community concerns of an unwanted correlation between Ida B. Wells—the historic Black activist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who documented and crusaded against lynching—and a tree which could conjure up reminders of hanging people with ropes from branches.
“I’m wondering if there was any concern with the imagery there, in using a tree … as our mascot?” DePass asked the renaming and mascot committee. “I think everyone comes with blind spots and I think that might’ve been a really big blind spot.”
School Principal Filip Hristic told the school board that Wells-Barnett’s family has been supportive of the school’s efforts to honor and promote her legacy, but shared DePass’s concerns.
“We take this seriously and I definitely want to follow that commitment to protect, preserve and promote the legacy of Ida B. Wells,” Hristic said, but noted the school’s committee hadn’t had conversations with the Wells-Barnett family specifically about the mascot.
“The focus and opportunity was really to marry this sentiment that we heard from a lot of our stakeholders during our naming process, which was the desire for a local connection,” Hristic said. “Ida B. Wells was somebody who stood strong and stood proud against what Woodrow Wilson and many others promoted.”
Hristic and Whatmore said the evergreen tree was a great way to capture more of a local connection in the school’s identity.
In February, a mascot survey was sent to students and staff. They submitted 420 different nominations, said Ellen Whatmore, a teacher at Ida B. Wells who served on the committee to find a new name and mascot. The massive list of potential mascots was narrowed down to just five, with the evergreen tree being the frontrunner.
Martin Osborne, one of the committee members, said the group did discuss the potential symbolic connection between the school’s new namesake and the murderous acts she fought hard to denounce, but the tree still stood out as the best way to represent the Southwest Portland school.
“We did talk about it, but we were looking at the symbolism more as a tree of life, than a tree of death,” Osborne, who is African American, told the school board. “You could certainly take it either way, depending upon your position.”
Osborne said the committee’s idea of the evergreen “had nothing to do with the horrible history of lynching in the United States.”
“Lynching tress typically are not evergreens,” he added, saying deciduous trees with large, lower branches were typically used to hang Black people in the south.
The conversation was enough to give the board pause. DePass suggested the school committee reach out to Wells-Barnett’s family to make sure they saw no issue with the potential mascot. She also implored her colleagues to weigh in.
“Lynching is a really difficult topic to talk about and as a sole Black board member, I invite you, beg you, implore you to join me in disrupting the situations, practices, that are racist. I can’t do this by myself,” she said.
The board delayed the mascot vote until the next meeting.