As monuments of Confederate leaders from the past continue to be removed from parks and neighborhood squares, many wonder if their removal will truly enhance or simply inhibit our understanding of and the truth about America’s often troubled history.
But it’s not just statues that stand to be sequestered to local storage facilities as efforts have increased to change the monikers of public schools with the names of men and women who better represent our nation’s diverse community.
As an example, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Lewis Ferebee recently announced his proposal to rename Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest in honor of August Wilson, the 20th-century playwright most known for chronicling the African-American experience.
The proposal, which will soon be discussed among D.C. council members, has incurred the ire of Wilson alumni and community members who’ve expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of the selection and DCPS’ sincerity about denouncing former President Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy.
For one prominent Wilson Tiger, Ferebee’s announcement calls into question whether DCPS considered candidates of relevance to the Wilson community.
“We have an opportunity [in] this moment to choose a Black woman educator with ties to the school while completely repudiating Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy,” said D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), a 1993 Wilson alumnus.
McDuffie expressed his support for Edna Jackson, the first Black person to teach at the school after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954. He said an article published last year in Wilson’s student newspaper, The Beacon, sparked his fervor.
The council member went even further in encouraging District residents to research Jackson, Vincent Reed, William Syphax and other local heroes whose names count among those under consideration.
For the time being, however, McDuffie plans to confer with Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and other Wilson community members, some of whom he recounts felt left out of the decision-making process.
“The new name should reflect the community’s values, not simply the most popular or convenient option,” McDuffie said. “I don’t think what has happened up until this point is exhaustive of what should be considered when the D.C. Council takes this up.”
A Multi-Ethnic Community School
If the D.C. Council introduces and approves legislation in favor of change, Wilson would take on its new name at the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year.
Though Wilson is based in Ward 3, it has long attracted students of various races from all corners of the District. The school, well regarded for its academic and sports offerings, has been a refuge for Black students hailing from east of Rock Creek Park and Southwest.
Graduates of Deal Junior High and other racially diverse schools in that cluster also count among the members of the student body.
Last fall, DCPS began a public engagement process around the Wilson name change that involved the submission of more than 2,000 nominations and a public input survey that attracted over 6,000 responses. Officials said the survey results indicated August Wilson High School as the most popular choice among students, alumni, family and community members.
However, some alumni, including filmmaker and educator Antonia Washington, said DCPS never made them privy to a process that some have characterized as haphazard.
Washington, a 2004 graduate who lives in Atlanta, said officials should have exhausted all avenues to inform Wilson alumni and other community members about their plans and the process.
“Maybe they did a poll but I wasn’t aware of it. It just seemed kind of fast,” Washington said. “August Wilson was a great playwright and I enjoy his work [but] does he have ties to Wilson [or] the community? People just want to take the easiest route to get something done.”
A Movement Years in the Making
As president, Woodrow Wilson imposed segregationist employment policies on an integrated federal government. His decisions have been credited with hindering the growth of D.C.’s African-American middle class during the early 20th century.
Perhaps that explains why members of the DC History and Justice Collective, a group that has coalesced around the Wilson name change for the last three years, say DCPS’ decision to rename the high school in honor of August Wilson remains unsatisfactory.
Within days of Ferebee’s announcement, the group released a statement calling on the D.C. Council to vote down what members described as an attempt to maintain the “Wilson” brand and avoid more difficult conversations about the damage caused by the 28th president’s segregationist policies.
“While we love and respect August Wilson, we wonder if he would’ve been [considered] if his name wasn’t Wilson and that choice didn’t make it easier for people who opposed the name change,” said Judith Ingram, a Ward 3 resident and founding member of the DC History and Justice Collective.
“I think when they made the announcement last week, it was taken as a final decision but the D.C. Council does have to weigh in and we hope they will take our concerns.”