PPS changes Wilson HS name to honor Ida B. Wells-Barnett

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The name change to honor the journalist is effective immediately

FILE – In this Dec. 2, 2011 file photo, Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells who led a crusade against lynching during the early 20th century, holds a portrait of Wells in her home in Chicago’s South Side. Duster’s biography of the pioneering African-American journalist and activist, “Ida B. the Queen” will come out next February. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Effectively immediately, Portland no longer has a Woodrow Wilson High School. It’s now called Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School.

The Portland Public Schools board made the decision at a meeting Tuesday night and implemented it immediately.

Back in July, PPS laid out a plan for renaming its buildings and other spaces — including Woodrow Wilson High School.

At that time, PPS officials told KOIN 6 News this came in response to the continuing unrest in America, including in Portland, as. a reaction to the systematic racism brought into public focus. The plan is to create a “renaming and redefining committee” that will begin in September as part of a five-phase process.

The call for changing Wilson High School – named after former President Woodrow Wilson — was brought up by a student group, the school district said.

A teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School wants to change the name. (AP image_PPS)_176219
President Woodrow Wilson and the high school named for him in Portland (KOIN, file)

The move to rename the school began at least as far back as 2015 when a history teacher at the school tweeted: “(Expletive) Wilson and any school he’s named after.”

Back then, Hyung Nam tweeted 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.

But Nam’s tweet was not a spontaneous comment. He had railed against his high school’s namesake throughout that 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, 2015.

Portrait of American journalist, suffragist and Progressive activist Ida Wells Barnett (1862 – 1931), 1890s. (Photo by R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was a journalist and publisher in the late 1800s and early 1900s and later helped found civil rights and women’s suffrage groups. Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in 1931.

Her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster just released a biography, “Ida B. the Queen,” of the pioneering African-American journalist and activist. Duster collaborated on the book with Atlantic staff writer Hannah Giorgis.

Duster is an author and educator who has spoken often about the legacy of Wells and previously worked on the books “Ida from Abroad” and “Ida In Her Own Words.”

In May 2020, Wells was honored with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, noting “her outstanding and courageous reporting” on lynchings.

‘This change long overdue’

In comments during the meeting, PPS Board of Education member Andrew Scott offered his thoughts on the change, along with his insights on the arguments for and against renaming the school.

Scott, who graduated from Wilson High in 1991 and has 2 children who will graduate from the school in the coming years, said he things “our community broadly supports this change.”

But he is fully aware there is opposition to this.

Woodrow Wilson High School in Portland, August 15, 2019 (KOIN)

“One argument that I heard from a couple of people is that Woodrow Wilson’s legacy is complex and it included many positives as well as some negatives and that this action erases the contributions of an important historical figure and the second thing I heard a couple of times is that some frustration that the finalist of names only included Black women and therefore was not diverse,” Scott said.

He noted that Wilson’s legacy is, indeed complex — as president he began the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) and was an internationalist.

“But I didn’t learn about his racism and I didn’t learn about his furtherance of segregation and I didn’t learn about the harm that he cause to American citizens, harm that lingers to this day. I think it’s important to note this action doesn’t erase Wilson’s legacy, it acknowledges it in a way that’s long over due, that we haven’t done to date and it determines that on balance Wilson does not deserve a prominent place on the front of one of our comprehensive high schools.”

The other criticism Scott said he heard repeatedly was that there were only Black women in the list of finalists.

“All I can say is: It’s about time.”

“I think in a country that for over 200 years has named almost every school and road and bridge and building after white men it’s way past time to rebalance those scales and for most of our history the contributions of women and people of color have been systematically and suppressed,” Scott said. “So if I can take the liberty of speaking on behalf of all white men I will assure you that we will survive just fine not having anything named after us for a few more years as we sort of rebalance the scales.”

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