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Editorial: Corvallis needs public input on renaming schools

Editorial: Corvallis needs public input on renaming schools

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Hoover Elementary School 02

Woodrow Wilson's racist views have landed what is now called Wildcat Elementary on a list of Corvallis schools being considered for renaming.

The Corvallis School Board apparently is embarking on a mission to remove the names of three presidents of the United States from public schools without much input from the public, and that’s a shame.

We don’t disagree that school names should be up for debate — all of them, not just those named for men whose actions were inarguably racist in hindsight.

But this is such a big decision that the residents of Corvallis should be included in the process. There should be wider debate, and the school board needs to slow down before making a vote on the matter.

Under review by the Corvallis School Board are three of six elementary schools named after U.S. presidents: Wilson Elementary, Hoover Elementary and Jefferson Elementary.

The real complicating factor here is Thomas Jefferson, a patriot and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most influential pieces of writing in history. He’s not just a Founding Father of America. He is one of the fathers of self-governance worldwide. He’s on Mount Rushmore for a reason.

Yet Jefferson is also a man who owned more than 600 humans in his lifetime, despite speaking out against slavery and, as president, signing a law banning further importation of slaves into the United States. He also fathered children with Sally Hemings, a female slave in his possession — which isn’t exactly a consensual relationship, despite those who would try and romanticize the gross power imbalance.

Nevertheless, Jefferson is regularly rated by several surveys of historians, including both conservative and liberal thinkers, as one of the top five presidents ever. So choosing a new moniker for a school named after him is a tricky proposition.

Ultimately, it’s a weird dynamic when you’re measuring a person’s contributions to the world versus their atrocities. But there’s a reason Jefferson is revered, despite his awful actions, and people shouldn’t be harshly judged for making this sort of calculation.

Wilson, who led the United States through World War I, is regularly rated as a top 10 president, despite being a champion of segregation and white supremacy. His policies created a stronger federal government, protected the common American against the abuses of employers and large corporations, and influenced the formation of the United Nations and the globalism that the United States and much of the world is currently — perhaps unsuccessfully — retreating from.

But Wilson clearly is no Jefferson. Due to his racism, his own alma mater, Princeton, recently erased his name from its School of Public and International Affairs, as well as a residential college.  

Hoover shouldn’t result in many complaints, though there’s some pearl-clutching about how his legacy must be preserved.

There are always books to show that Hoover was a lackluster leader for our great nation during the Great Depression, when he opposed direct relief action by the United States government. Hoover failed to see and seize the moment, resulting in a landslide re-election defeat.

The consensus is that Hoover was a substandard or even outright bad president, as well as being racist and xenophobic.

To be clear, the Corvallis School Board’s apparent renaming rush is a far different situation than what unfolded with the removal of the South Albany High School mascot, a decision without much public input. The Rebels nickname, and the image of a Confederate general, honored those who fought against the United States to perpetuate slavery.

For decades, some athletes of color had extra fire when they played the Rebels. The nickname, to a certain degree, sullied not only the statewide reputation of South Albany, but also the city itself. How could Albany residents support an overtly racist mascot? This wasn't an overly complicated decision.

While South Albany’s mascot celebrated traitors to the United States, Jefferson, Wilson and Hoover were leaders of this country. All three have severe problems, but as presidents, there should be discussion about removing their names, not just input when choosing new individuals or groups to honor.

Ultimately, decisions that have greater public participation get greater public buy-in. So let’s talk. And, let’s be honest, this is liberal Corvallis. The majority of the community may very well agree with the move to rename all three schools. And if that’s the case, we can think of a plethora of worthy Oregonians who don’t have skeletons in their closets.


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