Renaming Cleveland: Following in the Footsteps of Student Activists

Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

With 81 schools and nearly 50,00 students, Portland Public Schools is the biggest school district in Oregon. The high schools famously named after United States presidents have recently faced scrutiny that has prompted a renaming movement. In May of 2021, students from the former Woodrow Wilson High School paved the way. By removing the name of Wilson, who expressed racist beliefs and actions while in office, Wells High School’s movement initiated change within the district to create an anti-racist atmosphere. Today, the school is known as Ida B. Wells after the journalist, publisher, and activist. By removing the name of Wilson, who expressed racist beliefs and actions while in office, Wells High School’s movement initiated change within the district to create an anti-racist atmosphere.

Additionally, what used to be known as James Madison High School renamed themselves after a former administrator, Leodis V. McDaniel. McDaniel worked at the school in the ‘80s, and “was tasked with leading Madison through desegregating and bussing,” according to their PPS “about us” page. “McDaniel embraced this challenge as he did all of his administrative duties with the singular purpose of fairness to all. He was well known for his kind demeanor, contagious laugh, absolute integrity, and his instinctual ability to deeply connect with all people.”

Our high school is named after the 22nd and 24th president Grover Cleveland, best known for being the only American president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Outside of this unique anecdote, President Cleveland is not widely remembered for contributing long withstanding changes to our country.

“What degree of abject violence does it take to overwrite the legacy of the blandest president ever?” writes Vice magazine. And indeed this is answered in the lack of overwriting of Cleveland’s history, as he was accused of rape in 1884. As is further explained in the Clarion article “Cleveland Needs a Name Change” by Ailsa Beckwith, when the victim of the assault, Marie Haplin, became pregnant, Cleveland had her separated from her child. When Marie attempted to reunite with her son, taking him back from the orphanage, she was subsequently admitted to a psychological ward. Cleveland heavily contributed to further demonization that occurred against Marie throughout the rest of her life.

When illicit information about his child arose, Cleveland lied to the public, covering up the assault and painting himself as a courageous hero. Cleveland carried out two full terms of presidency, and in the years since, has been honored in various ways–such as being the namesake for our school–regardless of his horrific past.

It is crucial that we, the Cleveland community, are not passive about what we want our school to represent. When you name a school after someone, says Principal JoAnne Wadkins, “You’re not only honoring that person, but what that person represents. I think that the work that was done by the students at McDaniel and the students at Ida B. Wells really was thoughtful in finding someone that had a more local impact, and maybe that can bring more meaning to the school community.” A name holds value, and if we continue to idolize and preserve the legacy of problematic figures, we are not promoting the ideal of justice within our school. However, the renaming process of a school is extensive and not entirely in the hands of students. The process would include, but is not limited to, the formation of a committee, proposal to the district, a vote by the Oregon Board of Education on the proposed names, and an expensive rebranding process.

High school students across the district have taken steps to pave the way in making their schools representative of justice and equality. Through the renaming process, students raise awareness to the inexcusable actions of our past presidents and highlight the momentous work of underrepresented figures in our nation. Principal Wadkins offers her full support to the student body, stating, “I would support any process that the students want to follow in renaming Cleveland High School.”

While no renaming committee currently exists at Cleveland, discussions among students in the halls and classrooms bode well for the future. With Principal Wadkins’ support, we urge our community to turn words into actions and pursue next steps with the student body. We must look to our high school to continue the work of our peers and honor those who deserve recognition.