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Debate over renaming schools remains impassioned almost a year after George Floyd's death

Sometimes considered “the low-hanging fruit of activism,” removing offensive monikers can give students a sense of pride and representation, experts said.

PORTLAND, Ore. — 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.

While some may view changing a school’s name as an easy substitute for the hard work of tackling systemic racism, others see it as a highly visible way to mark the end of the status quo at institutions that often have a profound effect on young people.

“Renaming a school is the low-hanging fruit of activism,” said Lauren Duncan, a psychology professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, who studies what makes people become politically active.

“It doesn’t cost anything to the people who support it,” she continued. “Signing a petition may be the only action a person ever takes, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. Representation is a powerful thing.”

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.

Scott said she feels represented by Wells-Barnett and proud of her own role in honoring the investigative journalist.

“I think a lot of what schools have done is kind of tell us that we don’t have the power that we have,” Scott said, referring to Black students and the lessons they learned through the experience.

Dani Ledezma, Portland Public Schools’ senior adviser for racial equity and social justice, said it was important to include students on the renaming committee.

“If we change a building’s name from X to Y, in 10 years, we want to make sure that’s built into the student experience … the why of the name change and why the new name is better,” Ledezma said.

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.

As offensive namesakes and insensitive monikers at schools started falling like statues to Confederate figures, perhaps no effort generated as much attention as the one in San Francisco, where the school board voted in January to rename 44 schools that it believed honored people with discriminatory legacies.

The proposal has since stalled as the district focuses on reopening schools during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Duncan, of Smith College, said studies show that images and symbols have a direct impact on the self-esteem of students and their motivation to succeed. Girls who have images of female scientists in the lab, even in the form of a poster, are more likely to succeed at science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, studies. The same holds true for other underrepresented groups, she said.

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.

“Our voice should carry much more weight than the people who never attended the school … we loved our school,” he said. “It was never about racism, it never has been about racism for us. It’s about Southern pride.”

Board member Darryl Willy, who initiated the name-change process, said he appreciated the community feedback but found some responses difficult to accept.

“It was hard to sift through some of those comments and not have a reaction as a person, as a Black male, as somebody who worked with students and walked in the schools,” he said.

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.

Yet Artasia Parks, a Black student in her senior year, said she doesn’t think the name should be changed nor should the statue come down because they serve as benchmarks for accomplishment in her community. That Black students now have the right to attend a school that once kept them out is one such accomplishment, she said.

“They shouldn’t take out the statue, it’s a part of our history,” she said. “They shouldn’t erase our history.”

For Scott, getting involved in the renaming of Woodrow Wilson High school was a critical part of her student experience and to know she will graduate in the first class at Ida B. Wells-Barnett High is a source of pride.

She hopes to encourage incoming students of color to join together to push for lasting change.

“A lot of people in the community were patting themselves on the back, and it seemed a little like performative activism — look at this cool thing we did,” Scott said. “At the end of the day, it’s important to see that real change follows name change. I don’t want this to be the be-all, end- all in their activism.”