TACOMA, Wash. — Two Tacoma principals are leading the charge to rename their schools after complaints about the racist history of the men they were named after.
Bernadette Ray, principal of Woodrow Wilson High School, and Christine Brandt, principal of Jason Lee Middle School, are working to form committees after receiving letters and requests to change the names, Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno confirmed in a school board meeting last week.
“To have a principal that would stand up and take this process under their wing is great, and they have both agreed to do it,” Santorno said.
Ray, principal at Wilson for two years and currently the only Black Tacoma high school principal, said she began considering a name change after the news in June that Princeton University planned to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school.
“For me, it’s absolutely inexcusable to have a KKK sympathizer on the exterior wall of my building, and when we know better, we do better,” Ray told The News Tribune.
At the height of national protests over police brutality this year and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ray also said she was contacted by members of the community in support of the name change. One of them was Xavier Cooper, a 2010 Wilson graduate, Tacoma resident and former NFL player.
“With everything going on in America, it felt right speaking up,” Cooper, 28, told The News Tribune. “...Tacoma is very diversified, so I don’t want a high school to be named after someone who disrespected African Americans, Blacks or any other race.”
The decision to change the name has gathered support from inside and outside the district. Antonio McLemore, program manager for the Male Involvement Program with the Tacoma Urban League, said the name change is a step in the right direction.
“For too long we’ve idolized people who have oppressed Black people,” McLemore said. “We’ve turned them into heroes, and in doing so we have suppressed the voice of Black people in our country.
“And I think this is what it looks like for organizations to not only take accountability but also for them to start the work of making things right and reconciling with communities that have historically marginalized people in positions of power.”
Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president of the United States, serving from 1913 to 1921, and known for leading the country through World War I. He was also a segregationist who wrote a history textbook praising the Confederacy and was an advocate of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jason Lee was a missionary known for the settlement of the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. He was also largely insensitive to native culture, establishing a school in an effort to convert Native Americans to the beliefs and practices of white Americans. The school also helped spread disease among students.
According to News Tribune archives, Wilson High School first opened with the name in 1958. Jason Lee opened in the 1920s and was formerly known as West Intermediate School.
LaTasha Wortham, board president of the Tacoma Urban League, is a 1995 graduate of Wilson High and also attended Jason Lee Middle School. As a student there, she said she didn’t know about the history of the two men until she got to college, where she took Black history classes.
“I learned in college that (Wilson) specifically targeted Black people and kept them as an underclass. He was an awful figure in my mind, but I didn’t learn that until much later,” Wortham said.
When asked if she thinks the name changes could spur discussions among youth, Wortham said she thinks it already has.
“I think (youth) are going to be more inspired to get behind the idea of removing the symbols of hate and white supremacy,” she said.
Various petitions have already been circulating to change Tacoma school names, including one call to action posted to Facebook pages detailing controversy surrounding Jason Lee and asking families to send letters to elected officials.
“Jason Lee was a genocidal colonist whose legacy is a stain and when we uphold the monument to his legacy in the name of this school, we do tremendous harm to Indigenous people, the Salish nations, BIPOC students, and the community at large,” the call to action stated.
Tacoma Public Schools policy requires principals to prepare a written report summarizing any support or opposition to the name change and submit it to the superintendent.
The superintendent will present the recommendation to the school board for approval. If the name change is approved by the board, notifications are sent to the appropriate federal, state and local offices.
The principals are still working to solicit feedback.
At Wilson, other leaders with the last name Wilson are being considered to balance the financial cost that comes with changing the name of a school. Stephanie Wilson, an astronaut and the second Black woman to go to space, and August Wilson, an American playwright, are two names that came to mind, Cooper said.
Wortham said she’d like to see some of the schools renamed after local leaders, like Harold Moss, the first Black mayor of Tacoma, or women.
“I assume that there will be some pushback (to the name changes), but I hope that people will be open to learning and understanding why it’s so important,” she said.
McLemore suggested considering historical Black figures, like Benjamin Bannecker, Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglass.
“When you tell Black history, you are elevating American history,” he said.
Ray hopes to present to the board by the end of summer or early fall.
“I think I owe it to my students and my community to help to lead the change,” she said.