Effective immediately, three Corvallis elementary schools will no longer bear the names of former U.S. Presidents Herbert Hoover, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson.
The Corvallis School Board on Thursday voted 6-1 in favor of a resolution calling for the changes. It is unclear at this time what the schools’ interim names will be. But, per the resolution, the board will also create a task force to review other district building names and solicit input from the community for new names.
The three former presidents each have histories of racism, from owning African slaves to deporting birthright citizens to Latin America. The Black Lives Matter movement, according to board member Vincent Adams, was a motivational factor in the timing of the resolution.
Ruby Hoffman, a fifth-grade student at what is now formerly known as Wilson Elementary, already had a few names in mind during the public comment period of the meeting.
She suggested people like Maya Angelou, who helped inspire people, or Harriet Tubman because she “helped people to be free.”
“I am one of the few Black students at Wilson,” Ruby said. “Woodrow Wilson was racist and unfair. Once I learned about Wilson’s racist past, I was unsure and nervous. Changing the name would make Black people proud of where they get their education.”
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The renaming task force, which would have between nine and 15 superintendent-approved members, could include students, parents or guardians, staff members, Corvallis residents with lived racial experience and social justice experts. The group, as proposed, would meet a handful of times between September and January, then disband after at least the three elementary schools get new names.
During the meeting, though, the board discussed the possibility of pushing that start date to October, so as not to distract attention from the unorthodox beginning of the upcoming school year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Board member Jay Conroy was the lone dissenting vote on immediately removing the three school names. He’d advocated since the July 30 board meeting that the resolution be tabled for further review, even moving on Thursday to hold off on voting until the next meeting on Sept. 10. Although Adams entertained the idea of waiting in order to have a unified board on such a contentious issue, Conroy’s motion was eventually shot down.
“I really value an open, transparent, ‘Let’s hear all sides’ kind of approach,” Conroy said in a phone call with the Gazette-Times on Wednesday. “Naming the schools should be a topic in consideration and moving forward.”
The board received hundreds of email, letters and phone calls about whether the schools should retain their names in the last week. Around 100 of them were received between Wednesday and the noon deadline on Thursday — one of the reasons Conroy implored his peers to postpone the vote.
“I think expediency and enough deliberation are both important on issues,” said Board Chair Sami Al-AbdRabbuh in a phone call with the Gazette-Times on Wednesday. “I also want to honor the emotional labor from students that ‘I would not be heard in the last century’ … because of their identities.”
Board member Terese Jones said she pored over each email and essentially categorized them by the writer being for, against or neutral to name changes. The emails from those who were in favor of change, she said, shared the key characteristics of being “forward thinking” and recognizing an immediate gain for minority children. Strikingly, she said, others were simply opposed to change in general.
“One group is plainly saying, ‘These names are bad for us,’ and one group is saying, ‘We don’t want you to change this,’” Jones said. “And those are very different reasons.”
Fellow member Sarah Finger McDonald said some messages against changing school names claimed that the board wanted to erase history, with which she disagreed.
“In fact, I think it’s an opportunity to celebrate the diversity and complexity of our history,” she said, “while having discussions about the men whose names you’re removing, their accomplishments (and) the reasons why their names were probably put on the schools initially but, as our understanding of history has changed, why we might want to take those names down.”
Corvallis High School teacher Christa Schmeder, before speaking to the board in favor of the name changes, apologized to Al-AbdRabbuh, Luhui Whitebear and any other person of color who had to witness racist comments regarding school names.
“I don’t believe we have set up the playing field in a way that people of color … can feel equal or invited to the table,” she said. “We have to do something that might seem drastic or untimely for our fragile, white selves,” she said.
Although Conroy was on board with addressing racist legacies in the district, he said, he believed the three presidents should have undergone further review to weigh the men’s contributions to society against their racist actions.
“I’m not afraid of change at all and I think racism is absolutely terrible, but do some good thinking about it,” he said. “People, because they are sinful or have their foibles or their limits, they do things that, in their overall general character, we’d say, ‘That’s not representative.’”
Whitebear and other board members disagreed with Conroy’s take in their previous meeting, saying it’s harmful to tell minority communities that some acts of racism could be counterbalanced.
“We don’t have the lived experience of the hurt of this matter,” Adams, who is white, said.
On Wednesday, when asked where he could put his foot down on unforgivable actions, Conroy said Adolf Hitler came to mind because he masterminded the Holocaust. But, he said, he didn’t believe the enslavement of Africans by a single person fit the same bill.
“I don’t think Jefferson is the architect of a genocidal system,” he said. “Is there any doubt that (slaves) were abused … based on today’s standards? Absolutely. I guess the next step would be to take time and go back and say, ‘Is there any type of consideration that should be given for the times that (the abusers) were living in?’”
Before the vote, Al-AbdRabbuh emphasized that the board was there to consider a moral question: What effect does honoring racist people have on the board’s constituents? Because of the feedback members received, he was on the side of voting sooner rather than later.
“The time is always now for these kinds of questions,” he said.
Reporter Nia Tariq can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.