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Portland high school's choice of new mascot — evergreen trees — could be a problem due to lynching connotations, officials say

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School is named after a black activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote about and spoke against lynching

Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

After a Portland high school underwent a name change in January due the "problematic" racial history of its original namesake — former President Woodrow Wilson — district officials now find themselves in quandary over finalizing the school's mascot due to concerns over possible lynching connotations.

The mascot in question? Evergreen trees.

What are the details?

The school's current mascot is the Trojans, but a committee consisting of students, staff, and community members arrived at the evergreens as the new mascot of what's now called Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School, the Portland Tribune 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," Ellen Whatmore, a teacher at the high school and mascot committee member, read from a resolution, according to the Tribune. "They provide shelter and sustenance. They have histories that preclude us and will continue in perpetuity after we are no more."

But the outlet said that just prior to last Tuesday's vote by the Portland Public Schools Board of Education to approve the new mascot, Director Michelle DePass shared community concerns that evergreens could connote lynching — particularly since new namesake Wells-Barnett was a black activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote about and spoke against lynching.

"I'm wondering if there was any concern with the imagery there, in using a tree ... as our mascot?" DePass asked the renaming and mascot committee, the Tribune noted. "I think everyone comes with blind spots, and I think that might've been a really big blind spot."

School Principal Filip Hristic told the board that "we take this seriously, and I definitely want to follow that commitment to protect, preserve, and promote the legacy of Ida B. Wells," adding that the committee hadn't spoken to the Wells-Barnett family specifically about the mascot, the outlet reported.

"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," Hristic said, according to the Tribune. "Ida B. Wells was somebody who stood strong and stood proud against what Woodrow Wilson and many others promoted."

Martin Osborne — who is black and is one of the committee members — said the group discussed the potential lynching connection between Wells-Barnett and evergreen trees "but we were looking at the symbolism more as a tree of life than a tree of death. You could certainly take it either way, depending upon your position," the outlet reported.

Osborne added that the evergreen choice "had nothing to do with the horrible history of lynching in the United States," the Tribune noted.

"Lynching trees typically are not evergreens," he also said, according to the outlet.

Evergreens on hold

DePass suggested the mascot committee contact the Wells-Barnett family to make sure they don't see an issue with the evergreen mascot idea, the Tribune reported.

"Lynching is a really difficult topic to talk about, and as a sole black board member, I invite you, beg you, implore you to join me in disrupting the situations, practices, that are racist," DePass asked her colleagues, the outlet noted. "I can't do this by myself."

The board delayed the mascot vote until the next meeting, the Tribune said.

Anything else?

The outlet said a mascot survey was sent to students and staff in February, resulting in 420 nominations, after which the list of potential mascots was narrowed down to just five, with evergreens taking the lead.

The Tribune reported in a previous story that the high school's name change got rolling last June — amid the nationwide unrest following George Floyd's death — when students urged the board to rename what was Wilson High School. The outlet said the district released a statement saying school officials are "ready to listen to our communities and, in particular, our students to help guide us forward."

In addition, the Tribune noted that the district was also considering renaming Madison High School along with other sites named after what administrators called "problematic" historical figures.

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