All Over The Map: Place-name contest encourages students to explore community history

Apr 22, 2022, 6:30 AM | Updated: 7:33 am
Israel Road in Olympia is named for William C. Israel. Place-name research conducted by Legacy Wash...
Israel Road in Olympia is named for William C. Israel. Place-name research conducted by Legacy Washington for their student contest says that Israel is known for his involvement in creating the Thurston County Courthouse, known now as the Old State Capitol Building and home to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. (Washington State Archives)
(Washington State Archives)

Attention teachers and kids in all 39 counties: the Washington Secretary of State’s office has launched a new place name contest. Entries are due by Sunday, May 15.

The contest is called “What’s In a Place Name?”It’s underway now, and is open to K-12 students and classes in traditional schools or home schools anywhere in the Evergreen State.

It’s an initiative launched by a part of the Secretary of State’s Office called Legacy Washington, which is a small team that gathers oral histories and then mounts exhibits and publishes books, such as recent biographies of former governor and senator Dan Evans and former US Representative Julia Butler Hansen. Legacy Washington also leads other history-related initiatives, all under the leadership of a former newspaper editor from the Aberdeen area named John Hughes.

“What’s In a Place Name” is new this year, and the 2022 edition is being treated as something of a pilot project. Contest organizer Aaron Peplowski, a senior researcher at Legacy Washington, says the hope is for it to become an annual undertaking.

Peplowski told KIRO Newsradio that the contest’s goal is to “inspire students to look at their neighborhoods and the proper names that are on a street, or a school, or library, or a park or anything like that, and then say, ‘All right, who is this person? Why does this person have a named thing in this neighborhood, and does that name reflect the values of our community?’”

As Peplowski describes it, there’s an element of critical analysis in “What’s In a Place Name?” –they aren’t just looking for a book report about some forgotten person, they want to inspire a deeper level of thought and weighing of what can often be fairly complex factors. Peplowski acknowledges that this research and analysis might even lead to some participants considering further efforts to possibly change a current place name.

Peplowski says that if students are encouraged to research why something is named for a particular person, they will likely learn a lot more about their community along the way – and not just about the geography of a particular street, school, or park.

“Sometimes it’s named after people that had very little to do with Northwest history, or named after folks that may have had an intolerant past,” Peplowski said. “And we have to examine whether or not those strive to meet the values of our community.”

Mount Rainier is one example of the first case, Peplowski says. Namesake Peter Rainier never set foot anywhere near the Pacific Northwest, and the Puyallup Tribe is in the early stages of what will likely be a years-long effort to restore an Indigenous name to the mountain.

In the second case, Peplowski cited his own alma mater, formerly known as Woodrow Wilson High School in Tacoma. President Wilson, says Peplowski, has a “less-than-stellar race-relations record,” which inspired the community to last year change the high school’s name to honor community activist and city councilmember Dolores Silas – who was the first Black woman elected to the Tacoma City Council.

Entries in the “What’s In a Place Name?” contest may be submitted in a wide range of formats, including written reports, videos, audio recordings, walking tour maps, scripts for a play or other forms of expression. Legacy Washington is open to just about any sort of final product which effectively shares the research and the findings.

Peplowski says they are also open to entire classrooms researching a place name and working together to submit a single entry as a class project.

The deadline is coming up on Sunday, May 15. Legacy Washington has posted several helpful resources online – including a fascinating sample entry about Israel Road in Olympia. A panel of judges will select five winners who will be awarded $100 grants for their classrooms.

Winning entries will also be featured in a virtual exhibit and in publications from the Washington Secretary of State – and probably right here on a future installment of All Over The Map.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Place-name contest encourages students to explore community history