Changing names to reflect changing values

Naming something after someone is an honor. However, it’s important to consider whether or not that person deserves that honor.

As a movement, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has been a driving force for change for more than a decade. Dismantling Confederate war memorials is an aspect of racial justice, and as a direct result of BLM advocacy, the wider public has begun to reconsider the purpose and value of Confederate war memorials. During the 2020 George Floyd protests, statues memorializing famous slave owners and colonizers were toppled en masse. Others had their meaning transformed completely: most famously, the Robert E. Lee memorial in Richmond, VA became the site of a living community art project. Community messages and sentiments were painted on the steps, and at night, images of historic Black activists were projected onto the statue. The people had spoken – it was Black liberation history that should be upheld and memorialized, not Confederate generals.

The ripple effect from that summer is still in motion. All across the United States, statues and buildings named after historical figures are being taken down or renamed to better reflect current values. Here, in Washington state, we are also looking closer at who we honor.

In Tacoma, there have been two notable name changes. As of September 2021, Jason Lee Middle School has been renamed Hilltop Heritage Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School has been renamed Silas High School.

Jason Lee was a Christian missionary in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. He is largely known for his disregard for Native American culture and establishing a residential school designed to convert Native Americans to white American beliefs and practices. To name a middle school after a man like this is in poor taste at best. The new name ‘Hilltop Heritage’ is a welcomed change and reflects the school’s place in Tacoma’s history. In the 2021 unveiling ceremony, Puyallup Tribal Member and Historic Education Coordinator Charlotte Basch gave a speech reflecting on the damage Jason Lee did to the Puyallup tribe’s language and culture.
“It is incredibly powerful to be here today and speak our language,” she said, “Because it is still here, and we are still here.”

Another school in Tacoma also experienced a name change in 2021. Woodrow Wilson High school has been renamed Silas High School, in honor of Dr. Dolores Silas. Dr. Silas, 94, is known for being the first Black woman administrator in Tacoma Public Schools and the first Black woman to serve on the Tacoma City Council. She has also held the position of President of the Tacoma Chapter of the NAACP. She has been honored multiple times by the city of Tacoma for her lifetime of service and community advocacy. In contrast, former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, was responsible for further entrenching systemic racism through his decision to segregate employees in the Federal government. In my mind, it is clear that Dr. Silas is far more deserving of recognition.

Photo by National Park Service | A group of visitors at Mount Rainier National Park.

These name changes are victories for the people of Tacoma, as they reflect our local history and draw attention to what we see as most valuable. However, there is one other name change I think is overdue – give Mount Tahoma its name back.

Mount Tahoma is currently known as Mount Rainier, and was named such by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 after his friend, Admiral Peter Rainier. It is worth noting that Admiral Rainier never saw the mountain, nor even visited the Pacific Northwest at all – the closest he got was fighting on the English side of the Revolutionary War.

Vancouver’s choice of name conveniently ignored the fact that the mountain had already been named for several thousand years by the people who lived near it. The movement to restore Mount Tahoma’s name has existed for a while, but has grown in momentum recently. A name change of this magnitude is not unprecedented – Mount McKinley was officially federally recognized as Mount Denali in 2015. With this in mind, it is unclear as to why the Federal government refuses to budge on Mount Tahoma’s name.

What else around Tacoma needs renaming?

Further Reading:

Colarossi, N. (2020, July 21). Photos show how the Robert E. Lee statue in Virginia has been reclaimed to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Insider. 

History of Willamette. Willamette University. Retrieved October 9th, 2022 from

Introducing Dr. Dolores Silas High School. (2021, June 25th). The Suburban Times. 

Introducing Hilltop Heritage. (2021, October 12). Tacoma Public Schools. Retrieved October 9th, 2022 from https://hh.tacomaschools.org/about/news/story-details/~board/hilltop-heritage-news-updates/post/introducing-hilltop-heritage

Loewen, J. (n.d.) Textbook Myths About President Woodrow Wilson. Zinn Education Project.

Wilson and Race. Woodrow Wilson House. Retrieved October 9th, 2022 from

Weissman, C. (2017, July 1). The Case for Tahoma. The Mountaineers.