Race, inequity central to debate over renaming schools in Washington

Woodrow Wilson School

Conversations about race and inequity continue swirling across our country and also right here in Puget Sound. Those conversations are also now focused on the names of a pair of public school buildings in the Tacoma School District.

One of the schools in Tacoma, Woodrow Wilson High School, is named after the former U.S. president.

Amid reflections sweeping America, there is a push to rename the school as Wilson’s past is steeped in inequity.

“I just didn’t have think too hard about it because there is a lot coming at you when you’re a teenager,” said Lisa Keating, a former Wilson graduate.

Not only is Keating a graduate, but her child now attends the same school.

But by the time students are finally allowed to return to class, the name on the outside of the high school might be different.

“We get to help redefine who deserves to be celebrated,” said Keating.

“I didn’t want to stand for anything that has to do with racism,” said fellow graduate Xavier Cooper.

The same Cooper who is also a former WSU Cougar and an NFL defensive end. Cooper is also an alum of Woodrow Wilson High School.

Even though Wilson once won the Nobel Peace Prize, he was also considered by many as a segregationist.

Similar efforts to remove Wilson’s name from houses of education have happened as early as June 2020.

When Cooper asked his former high school principal to remove one of his old football jerseys currently hanging in the hallways, instead of erasing his connection to the school, the conversation shifted to possibly changing the school’s name.

“America is a great place,” said Cooper. “We need to fix what we’ve got going inside of America before we continue on our journey.”

“It was a different time and different expectations,” said WWHS Principal Bernadette Ray.

“(This year) may be when we decide that we need to change some names and we need to have representation differently,” said Ray.

She has worked at the school for 8 years and echoed Coopers’ conviction to remove the name Wilson from the walls.

A similar conversation is underway for Tacoma’s Jason Lee Middle School.

Renaming a public school is not simple and requires public input and consideration on how much the change could cost and a review by the school board.

It just so happens Keating was only recently elected.

“If the community is coming to us as a body and saying these names are harmful, then it’s my responsibility to listen and be responsive to find that solution,” she said.

Cooper believes coming to terms with systemic inequity, even in our own back yards, is a price we all must pay if deep wounds can ever begin to heal.

“The conversation of racism in America and all of the world needs to happen,” he said. “We all need to continue to address it, if we know we’re going to do better.”