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Wilson Name Change Campaign Gains Momentum

As racial-justice advocates continue to set their sights on the monuments immortalizing Andrew Jackson, Christopher Columbus and other controversial white figures, a longtime endeavor to rename Woodrow Wilson High School has garnered a new wave of support from students, alumni, elected officials and other community members.

Whether a popular petition and endorsements from D.C. Council members and school board officials would bring the intended paradigm shift has yet to be seen, especially since, as a name-change advocate told The Informer, the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) central office switched directions earlier this year near the end of a process much like what changed Orr Elementary in Southeast to Lawrence E. Boone Elementary.

“They were quite encouraging, pointing us to the school renaming policy based on Orr Elementary. We started down that road and kept them informed with every step, doing x, y, z, and sending letters to Chancellor Lewis Ferebee,” said Judith Ingram, a Ward 3 resident and founding member of the DC History and Justice Collective.

This grassroots group coalesced in 2018 in continuation of what some Wilson teachers attempted three years prior. Its campaign has focused on educating the public about segregationist employment policies President Woodrow Wilson imposed on an integrated federal government during the early 20th century. Those changes have been credited with hindering local African Americans’ advancement opportunities, and in turn the growth of D.C.’s Black middle class.

Other topics of discussion by the DC History and Justice Collective have often included Reno City, the Black community that once covered much of Fort Reno Park in Northwest before city officials and developers pushed out residents.

By the time the collective received some unwelcome news from DCPS in January, some members said they thought their campaign was gaining momentum. Their petition was approaching 1,000 signatures and they had already sat down before a few elected officials who have expressed interest and provided guidance.

“After some time of silence, I messaged the highest-ranking official other than Ferebee for feedback, and they said they needed to think about it,” said Ingram, also a parent of a Wilson student and alumna. “They said the renaming policy needed to be revamped.”

The DC History and Justice Collective has since solicited Mayor Muriel Bowser’s support in an open letter. DCPS officials issued a statement earlier this week confirming the mayor’s formation of a District-wide renaming policy working group, and the central office’s intent to work closely with her in the revision of their agency-specific guidelines.

Change in the Works?

In June, perhaps as a result of the DC History and Justice Collective’s public information campaign and questions in online forums about how white, affluent Ward 3 residents could contribute to the cause of racial equity, the renaming endeavor found new life and the group’s Change.org petition attracted nearly 18,000 signatures within two weeks.

The fervor around a possible name change has also inspired a bevy of suggestions about possible replacements, including Marion Barry, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Julian Bond and Edna Jackson, one of the school’s first Black instructors. These names and others can be found on the DC History and Justice Collective’s website.

Though some Council members — Ward 3’s Mary Cheh and reportedly Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, a Wilson alumnus — have spoken in support of Wilson’s name change, a council staff member said it has yet to be determined whether, or from which council committee, legislation would be created.

Meanwhile, an institution a couple hundred miles away with buildings bearing Wilson’s name has boldly addressed the question of his legacy. On Saturday, Princeton University officials announced the removal of the brand from its public policy school and residential college, saying that not even Wilson’s reputation as an internationalist and former Princeton president could blunt the impact of his racist policies.

Some people such as Phil McCall have deemed the name change essential in tackling the country’s history of racism.

However, the alumnus has noted that Woodrow Wilson represented a mindset indicative of the greater society. McCall also questioned the lengths the District government would go in renaming other buildings named after facilitators of white supremacy.

“Most, if not all, U.S. presidents would be considered racist [because] they have enforced racist policies,” McCall, a social entrepreneur and 2008 Wilson graduate, told The Informer. “I am in favor of the name change because Woodrow Wilson’s leadership and policies did oppress Africans, but given the racial climate and culture of America during his presidency I wonder how much he could really do.”

Last week, all members of the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE) — except At-large Representative Ashley MacLeay — signed an open letter asking Ferebee to move forward with the Wilson name change. The letter alluded to a comment he made in opposition to racist school policies and procedures, arguing that the erasure of the former president’s name from the school building would boost DCPS’ credibility on that issue.

“The school board doesn’t have the authority to compel anything [but] we can encourage the chancellor to do the right thing, and encourage our council members to further make that recommendation via some kind of council vote,” said SBOE President Ruth Wattenberg.

“No D.C. public school or building should be named for Wilson, because of what he did. It’s not appropriate,” added Wattenberg, who’s also the school board’s Ward 3 representative.

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