A former Thomas Jefferson High School student is calling for a change of the local school’s name due to the historical figure’s ties to abuse, slave ownership and white supremacy.
Rodney King, 41, started the petition to change the name of Thomas Jefferson High School on July 3. To date, it has been signed by more than 900 people.
“Basically, it’s something I’ve always been thinking about,” said King, who attended his sophomore and junior years of high school at Thomas Jefferson before graduating from Federal Way High School in 1997. “It’s the stuff you aren’t really taught in high school. You find out over time.”
Thomas Jefferson was a Founding Father and served as the president of the United States from 1801-1809. Despite speaking out against slavery, Jefferson owned plantations and more than 600 slaves throughout his lifetime, according to monticello.org.
“I think once people realize [the history], it’s pretty disgusting … to go to a school that is represented by someone that doesn’t represent them,” King said. “We definitely weren’t taught this.”
On the petition’s page, King wrote that Thomas Jefferson is “a founding father of our country but remains a symbol of white supremacy.”
Thomas Jefferson High School has a student population of 12.5% African American, 19.3% Asian and 30% Hispanic, “yet their name sake supported and maintained a stable of slaves,” King said. “It is time that we rename this institution of education to reflect a leader of our times.”
Federal Way Public Schools is committed to equity, antiracism and great outcomes for all scholars, said Whitney Chiang, director of multimedia communications for the district.
“As we engage in this work, we will continue to engage with our communities in a thoughtful, deliberate and comprehensive manner on issues like these,” she said.
The district’s primary focus is preparing for school in the fall, however “as we move forward, we will continue outreach to our community and other stakeholders about how we might review school names and mascots and make decisions for the future,” Chiang said.
Many of the petition signees include current and former students and other community members who support the change in name.
“As a student of TJHS, I can say that our school name clearly fails to represent our diverse and accepting student body,” said student Jacob Norris. “I believe that students should be able to nominate and vote for a new name asap.”
Federal Way High School teacher Quinn Gillis said “Our city and our children deserve more! Our city is diverse, beautiful and dynamic and should not be represented by a man who did not place human value on Black Americans!”
This petition for change was needed years ago and “I am sorry to every single Black student that attended that school and had to show pride for something so unjust and downright wrong,” said Reina Young.
King said now is the time to ask for change, especially with the new high school building under construction.
The new building replacing Thomas Jefferson High School is set to open in Fall 2021. King said he would like to see a new name go into effect upon the new building’s grand opening.
“In today’s climate, the time is right in order to change these founding institutions that we’ve been having to deal with uncomfortably our whole lives,” King said.
Recently, a statue of Thomas Jefferson was torn down by demonstrators outside of a high school in Portland, Oregon, during a June 14 protest. The marble base of the statue was also covered in the words “slave owner” and “George Floyd.”
While he doesn’t have any specific name changes in mind, King would like the community to have an opportunity to provide name ideas, possibly with local ties, to better represent the diversity of Federal Way.
King said ultimately as a historical figure, Thomas Jefferson doesn’t deserve recognition here.
“He’s already represented throughout the United States … I don’t think he represents what the Federal Way and Auburn areas have become.”
For more information or to sign the petition, visit change.org.