This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
When Tacoma students return to campuses for the first day of school on Sept. 8, those enrolled at the high school formerly known as Wilson will be greeted with some big, impossible-to-miss changes.
All references to President Woodrow Wilson on the front of the building, the reader board and the two main concrete signs on North Orchard Street are gone. Displayed proudly in their place is the name of the late Dolores Silas, a trailblazer in local education and government.
Among the offerings at Silas High School’s new student orientation last week was a session called Silas 101. “It’s one thing to change the name,” Principal Bernadette Ray told us Thursday. “It’s another thing for students to know why the name was changed.”
T-shirts, hats, water bottles and other spirit kit items feature the new red, white and blue school emblem — an S with the ram’s head mascot inside — which looks like the old version but for replacement of the W.
Perhaps most symbolic, nearly every athletic uniform now bears the name of Silas instead of the 28th U.S. president, who’s fallen under intense scrutiny for the racist stain on his record.
Other Puget Sound schools and the whole community will now see the students’ new connection to Tacoma’s first Black female school administrator, the first Black woman to serve on Tacoma City Council and the first person of color in Pierce County to have a high school named for her.
It’s a bond that Silas graduates will carry the rest of their lives.
Acquiring new uniforms for 24 sports programs on short notice under the constraints of five-year purchase cycles required some fast footwork.
So did other logistical details in the wake of the Tacoma School Board’s unanimous vote in February to change the name. Former district superintendent Carla Santorno estimated the transition would take 18 months and cost around $400,000.
Whether or not you agree with changing the original name of the school that opened in 1958, the speed with which officials are making it happen is impressive.
It unmistakably proclaims that the change wasn’t a half-baked gesture, or a PR move to appease activists after last year’s national wave of racial unrest.
That was the fear of Tacoma resident Jeff Gutfeld, a member of the Wilson class of 1986. In a letter, he told us he’s OK with the name change but heard from a staffer that athletes might be stuck with the old uniforms for five years. “Really, a 9th grader may wear a Wilson uniform their entire four years at SHS?” Gutfeld wrote. “How embarrassing for the kids, parents, alumni and Tacoma loyal levy supporters.”
Ray told us the possibility of a five-year transition wasn’t inaccurate; rather, it was a worst-case scenario. Since then, the district was able to reallocate funds that went unspent during last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns and ordered Silas uniforms for all sports programs.
The one exception: the girls volleyball C team. That season is already underway, and there wasn’t time to obtain uniforms for every Silas volleyball player, Ray said.
Some Wilson alumni and other community diehards have criticized the expense of changing the school name. But mostly they lament the loss of Wilson tradition and heritage immortalized in yearbooks, letter jackets and class reunions.
That’s understandable. And the namesake president’s legacy is complicated. Yes, Wilson’s record was disgraced by his Ku Klux Klan sympathies and segregation of the federal workforce. But modern historians can’t erase that Wilson led the progressive movement of the early 1900s, founded the League of Nations and had a strong environmental record. He created the National Park Service and established one of the Olympic Peninsula’s great treasures, the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.
Still, the name-change initiative, led by a committee of Wilson alumni, students, parents and educators, represents a purposeful step into the future. It’s also a fitting tribute to a humble, inspirational local leader who died in July at age 95.
Meantime, removing Jason Lee references from the Tacoma middle school bearing the missionary’s name will take longer. The school board voted in June to switch to the name Hilltop Heritage Middle School.
For any nostalgic Wilson alums clinging to the past, Ray has good news: The school plans to install a memorabilia collection on campus, possibly in the auditorium, cafeteria or library. Ray envisions it as a place “where we can honor Wilson High School as it was, and make sure people understand why we changed it to Silas.”
Eventually, Ray said, the public will have a chance to claim some leftover district-owned items, some of which are in high demand; she said she’s received multiple requests for the Wilson letters that were removed from the school facade.
The moral of this story is that embracing one’s alma mater need not mean a person must oppose forward-thinking change. Silas High is still Ram Country. And the Wilson faithful will always have memories, yearbooks, lifelong friendships, maybe even an old ballcap or jersey that’s displayed in the rec room.
Why not buy a Silas ballcap to put next to it?