The D.C. Council public roundtable scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 4 centered on renaming Woodrow Wilson High School.
But not in honor of the celebrated Black playwright August Wilson, as had been intended by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) leadership, but two local figures with historic ties to the Northwest-based school.
Weeks ago, the council’s Committee of the Whole introduced legislation to rename Woodrow Wilson High School to Jackson Reed High School as an ode to Edna B. Jackson, the school’s first Black teacher, and Vincent Reed, a principal who later served as DCPS superintendent.
The development satisfied community members who, at an earlier public roundtable in October, described DCPS’ proposal to rename Wilson High School after August Wilson as an attempt to appease alumni and community members eager to preserve the Wilson brand.
The D.C. Council’s scrutiny of the renaming process sparked hope among some like Paula Burke Duckett, a niece of Jackson, who relished the opportunity to fully change the school’s name and educate generations of students about the person she knew as “Aunt Eddie.”
“I would love to share her legacy,” said Duckett as she expressed support for the Jackson Reed High School name.
“She endured a lot of racism when she first went over to Wilson [and] she never shared any of that [with us],” Duckett said. “She was a wonderful person to discuss politics and local issues with. I feel honored that she’s being considered. Needless to say, she would be the first woman to have a high school named after her in D.C.”
In 1955, Wilson became the last District public high school to integrate its teacher workforce when Jackson, a social studies teacher, joined its ranks. For the next 21 years, Jackson made a name for herself as a no-nonsense instructor, all while enduring racial animosity and advocating for further integration and a Black studies curriculum.
During the late 1960s, Reed served as principal for one year amid changes to the school boundary lines that increased Wilson’s Black student population by 40 percent. Later, as DCPS superintendent, he established a system-wide curriculum that emphasized the mastery of foundational skills and boosted student achievement.
Reed’s 1980 resignation as superintendent inspired the fulfillment of his vision for what would eventually become Benjamin Banneker Academic High School.
During the campaign to rename Wilson High School, Jackson and Reed counted among a bevy of figures who community members mentioned. In a poll DCPS conducted earlier this year, August Wilson elicited support among 27 percent of respondents while 39 percent voted for either Jackson or Reed.
On October 19, while speaking about the Jackson Reed High School Designation Act of 2021, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) expressed concern about the motivation to rename Wilson High School in honor of the Pittsburgh-based playwright.
“It was clear looking at some of the comments that people wanted to rename August Wilson, not to honor him, but because they didn’t want to change the name of the school,” Mendelson said. “There was at the [October 6] hearing I believe more support for renaming the school either Jackson or Reed rather than Wilson and there was to my surprise emerging support for using both names.”
The campaign to rename Wilson, in existence since at least 2018, gained momentum last year during social justice protests and amid grassroots pressure to take down monuments of racist white figures.
During the pandemic, the DC History and Justice Collective gathered thousands of signatures on its online petition, hosted workshops and wrote an open letter to Bowser.
Shortly after DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced August Wilson as DCPS’ choice in April, the collaborative issued a statement demanding that the D.C. Council reject that proposal. For collaborative member Tim Hannapel, there would have been no other option but to do so, especially considering the other candidates.
Hannepel, a Northwest resident and a 1977 Wilson graduate, reflected on his interactions with Jackson, who he counted among his most influential teachers. He said Jackson not only challenged him but inspired his study of history throughout college and later in life.
“She was a warm, incredibly knowledgeable teacher [who] held the class to a high standard and encouraged critical thinking,” said Hannepel, 61.
“She was the best teacher I ever had and the reason why I became a history major [and] went back to explore Black history in D.C. When it came to learning something, she told the class to trust their first instinct. She was a force in that school,” he said.