Thomas Jefferson High School, or 'Jeff' as alumni and locals fondly call it, is a historic pillar of North Portland.
Its first graduating class was in 1912, and the school has the largest populations of African-American high school students in the state. But some people are questioning whether the founding father is an appropriate representative for this student body.
“Right now, the centerpiece of our neighborhood is a shrine and memorial to a Virginia slave trader,” said Clifford Walker during an interview in the library across the street from the high school. Walker attended Jefferson in the late 1950s and is the historian for the Humboldt Neighborhood Association, which is leading the charge to change the school name.
“We’re questioning whether that is the appropriate centerpiece for our neighborhood,” Walker said.
People around the community and staffers with Portland Public Schools all seem to be familiar with Clifford Walker and his crusade. He has been speaking out against the name of the high school for more than a decade.
The history of Thomas Jefferson is not debated. He is said to have owned about 600 slaves during his lifetime and fathered children with at least one, Sally Hemmings. What will be debated is changing Jeff’s name.
The school is located in North Portland, one of the city’s historically African-American neighborhoods, and alumni take a lot of pride in the school. Jeff has a world renowned dance team and nationally recognized athletics.
Jefferson students also can take college classes for free at Portland Community College. The school is an institution with a century of history, and passion for its name runs deep.
“I know that there are in fact people and families that have connections with Jefferson, and were the name changed it would cause them some great discomfort," said Lennie Edwards, a digital media teacher at Jefferson. "At the same time, I know that there is a lot of discomfort among people who attend Jefferson now, with that name."
Edwards has been teaching at the school for 31 years.
He said this is a conversation that rises and recedes from time to time. Edwards said this is at least the third time he has heard it.
“I have seen a lot change here at Jefferson,” Edwards said. “I have seen a school go from a very large percentage of African-American population — over 70 percent — to the incoming class this year I believe was only 50 percent. So I’ve seen the gentrification of the neighborhood. The gentrification of the school if you will.”
Supporters of changing the name are confident that this time around the proposal will gain some traction.
The issue is not isolated to Jefferson. Across the country, statues have tumbled and institutions have shed names of historic leaders with troubling pasts.
Locally, Oregon State University and University of Oregon have changed building names.
Julia Brim-Edwards, Portland Public Schools board chair, said she has heard the call to change the name by Walker and others over the years.
“There’s been a statewide discussion here in Oregon and legislation that changed the criteria of Native American imagery as mascots," Brim-Edwards said. "That’s another thing that has changed in the last 10 years that I think have really prompted people to look at what is in a name."
The school district does have a name changing policy in place, but a recent complaint about the team name at Benjamin Franklin High School, the Quakers, has prompted the board to consider a sweeping review of the names of schools, school facilities and teams.
Jefferson may be part of that review.
On Monday, members of the community will gather at North Portland Library to discuss the name. That conversation is not part of a formal process, but is an exploratory conversation to educate the community about Jefferson and get an idea about how the community feels.
“I well understand the importance of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson have played not only in this country but really inspired people around the world,” said Edwards, the longtime teacher. “But by the same token, the reprehensible behavior of the man, again I don’t think it’s a proper symbol for high school."
Discussion leaders plan to keep the conversation focused on educating and discussing the possible change, but Edwards said if they are looking for alternative names he has one in mind.
“Were it up to me I would like to see the name change to Barack Obama High School.”
Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration
Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more "Sharing America" coverage here.