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Neighbors debate changing the name of Jefferson High School

Neighbors gathered to discuss the idea of renaming Jefferson High School in north Portland Monday night.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Neighbors gathered in North Portland to discuss the idea of renaming Jefferson High School in North Portland, Monday night.

The discussion was prompted by Humboldt Neighborhood Association board member and Jefferson High graduate Clifford Walker.

“I think once they understand who [Jefferson] was and how he treated people of color, I think it would be a no-brainer for people but maybe people don't have brains. I don't know." said Walker.

As a high schooler, Walker said he didn’t dwell on his school’s namesake, but he does now.

“Can you imagine a public high school named after a Virginia slave owner and avowed racist?” Walker said.

Monday night’s meeting was the first opportunity for neighbors to formally discuss the matter. Jefferson High School junior, Sarah Steele, was among those in attendance.

“I feel like the (school’s name) has a lot of black pride and black history associated with it, but the person himself was disgusting and horrible,” said Steele. “If it were changed, it could be very progressive, as in it could be a black woman."

Other neighbors took a strong stand against changing the school’s name.

“It doesn't bother me,” said Jefferson graduate, Blenda Ryles.

Ryles said she would prefer it if neighbors would focus on improving the inside of the school, rather than what else they could call it. She said the notion of changing the name fit a pattern of behavior she's noticed.

“When the demographics change in a neighborhood, then all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘well, we have to come in and change everything,’” said Ryles. “We're gonna dismiss what was here before, and we're gonna make it ours, now."

The decision of whether or not to rename the school would be up to Portland Public Schools’ board of directors.

“(The board) is in the early stages of developing a district policy for those seeking a name change to a school,” said district spokesperson, Dave Northfield. “Board members hope to have the policy in place by the summer.”

Northfield said conversations about name changes were already underway at several schools besides Jefferson, including Franklin High School (an effort to change the mascot from The Quakers), Wilson High School and Harvey Scott K-8.

The idea of re-naming Jefferson high school was part of a national discussion regarding building names and monuments honoring historical figures associated with racism.

“People are willing to talk about this and learn to figure it out,” said Humboldt Neighborhood Association chair, Anne LaBorde.

The next neighborhood meeting to discuss re-naming Jefferson High School was set for February 14 at Portland Community College’s Cascade campus. More information here.