Vote on evergreen tree as new mascot delayed over Portland community lynching concerns

Portland Public Schools opted to rename formerly Woodrow Wilson High School to Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, and the school was set to vote last week on an evergreen tree being the new mascot —  under the old name, they were the Wilson Trojans.

That is until concerns were raised about the tree’s potential ties to lynching.

Turns out, Wells-Barnett was a prominent black journalist and activist who focused on black men being lynched in the late 1800s.

“I’m wondering if there was any concern with the imagery there, in using a tree … as our mascot?” Portland Public Schools Board of Education Director Michelle DePass asked at a meeting last week, according to the Portland Tribune.

“I think everyone comes with blind spots and I think that might’ve been a really big blind spot,” she added.

A committee of students, staff and community members put forth the evergreens as the school’s new mascot, the newspaper reported.

“Evergreens are characterized by the life-giving force of their foliage, the strength of their massive trunk, and the depth of their roots—in an individual tree and as a forest of trees,” said teacher Ellen Whatmore, who’s on the committee. “They provide shelter and sustenance. They have histories that preclude us and will continue in perpetuity after we are no more.”

But where some see a tree of life, others see a tree of death.

DePass shared community concerns about a tree being a reminder of hanging people with ropes from its branches.

Principal Filip Hristic said the committee did not speak with the Wells-Barnett family about the choice, stressing that they are taking the concerns seriously.

“We take this seriously and I definitely want to follow that commitment to protect, preserve and promote the legacy of Ida B. Wells,” Hristic said, according to the paper.

“The focus and opportunity was really to marry this sentiment that we heard from a lot of our stakeholders during our naming process, which was the desire for a local connection,” he added. “Ida B. Wells was somebody who stood strong and stood proud against what Woodrow Wilson and many others promoted.”

Democrats are pushing to rename schools named after America’s founding fathers, including George Washington, the father of the country, and Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, but Wilson is seen as being very much a racist — the irony being that he was a Democrat.

Committee member Martin Osborne, who is black, said evergreens “had nothing to do with the horrible history of lynching in the United States. Lynching trees typically are not evergreens.”

“We did talk about it, but we were looking at the symbolism more as a tree of life, than a tree of death,” Osborne told the school board. “You could certainly take it either way, depending upon your position.”

Tom Tillison

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