Outside eyes might see Wilson as a model urban high school, a microcosm of the city, with kids of all races sharing cafeterias and classrooms without strife. Inside those same glass doors, one can see a legacy of segregation – a legacy that Woodrow Wilson himself helped to create.
Supreme Court decisions integrate DC schools
The school was built in 1934 for only white students when two separate, but unequal, school systems existed in DC: one white and one Black.
In 1947 the DC school board handed five previously whites-only school buildings to the Black school system in a perfunctory attempt to appease frustrated parents and educators of Black students. No new schools had been built for Blacks in the city since World War II. The discarded buildings were run down and inconveniently located. Meanwhile, new schools were being built to accommodate white students.
In 1949, a group of Anacostia parents sued the local Board of Education on behalf of Spottswood Bolling, a 12-year-old Black student who was denied admission to John Philip Sousa Junior High School in Southeast because of his race. The case became one of the five lawsuits under the Brown v. Board of Education case. On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court came to a consensus, declaring racial segregation unconstitutional.
DC schools moved quickly. By September 1954 they had begun to integrate.
In integrated schools, Black students who had previously attended inferior schools lagged behind white students academically. Many integrated schools established tracking systems in 1956 to manage this, giving elementary school students aptitude tests to determine their track. The tracks resegregated the students with Blacks disproportionately placed in lower tracks, which were less rigorous and designed to prepare them for blue-collar jobs.
Wilson didn’t need a tracking system. The student body was still white, reflecting the racial makeup of the neighborhoods it drew from.
Housing segregation in the District had been outlawed in 1947 in the case Hurd v. Hodge, but redlining made it difficult for Black families to buy houses in Northwest neighborhoods. “Realtors would not show houses in certain neighborhoods to Black people, so some Black families that wanted to move within the boundaries of Wilson couldn’t,” Marguerite Ballard, who is white, says.
Wilson only began integrating after Hobson v. Hansen, a 1967 court decision which abolished all tracking systems and expanded Wilson’s boundaries to draw a more racially and economically diverse population.
Through the looking glass of Beacons and yearbooks, the first Black faces appear in the late 1960s. About half of the students pictured in the pages from the 1970s are Black. The decade is filled with afros, bell-bottom jeans, uncut hair, and thick framed glasses.
The Beacon published few articles about integration until 1970. In the October issue that year, an article announced an amendment to the student council election process. Proposed by 1971 graduate Joe Shapiro, it meant that any student who attended five consecutive meetings could become a voting member. Apparently, Black students were not getting elected, and the amendment aimed to make the process more equal.
The new boundaries brought students from affluent Black families who lived in the northern end of 16th Street, a neighborhood informally known as the “gold coast,” to Wilson. Librarian Pamela Gardner, who graduated in 1973, was one of those students. She took the H2 bus, which dropped her off at Yuma, one block away. This would have been convenient, had the police not arrested them there whenever the bus ran late.
Wilson had a reputation as a international school; the children of diplomats and World Bankers went there instead of private schools, which were small or nonexistent. Ballard, who graduated in the same class as Shapiro, remembers the school being segregated, but more along socioeconomic lines, which did not always match the ones drawn by race.
Classes, including the 13 APs, were racially mixed, according to Shapiro. So were many friend groups. He recalls standing by the flagpole outside the school with his friend Valerie Mitchell, who is Black, watching students form clusters. “On one end there were the white kids that only hung out with other white kids, and on the other end there were Black kids that only hung out with other Black kids, and in the middle there was this glorious group of Black and white kids together,” he says. But Gardner says that honors classes had a disproportionate number of white students, likening the social scene to Wilson’s today.
Homeroom every morning, where kids were seated alphabetically, brought different races together, Gardner explains. So did the atmosphere of protest. “Word would go out that everybody should look up at the clock and go to the stadium at 11 o’clock and we would start having bullhorn conversations,” she says. These walk-outs were about Vietnam, not race, and they brought everyone together. Ballard agrees. “We considered ourselves big time activists,” she says.
Race at a desegregated Wilson
John Brown, who graduated in 1975, doesn’t remember Wilson being segregated at all. He’s Black and grew up in Lamond-Riggs, a predominately Black neighborhood next to Takoma Park. He was a serious flutist and played for both the orchestra and band. The musicians were a diverse group and they grew close through 8 a.m. rehearsals. Forty years later, he still flies across the country to visit his high school bandmates. “It was a very safe place where everyone sort of got along,” he says. “We were typical teenagers but we really had an advantage of being in an environment that embraced diversity. We looked forward to going to school.”
This image of Wilson as a safe haven from racism was celebrated in the December 1970 issue of The Beacon, which described the school as “an unusual, precious, fragile organism, attacked from many sides.”
Beyond Wilson’s walls, hostility and disorder washed the streets. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 brought six days of riots to the city. Schools closed temporarily and a city-wide curfew was put in place. This all happened the year before Ballard enrolled at Wilson. Still, race seemed to her to be be almost a non-issue. “It never registered one way or the other, whether people were Black or white,” she says. “It was just ‘are you interested in the same things I’m interested in?’” Only when she started college at Duke University in North Carolina did she realize how big of an issue race was. “There was no mixing whatsoever there,” she says.
However, Ballard could recall one area where race did matter at Wilson. When a boy from the Black Student Union asked her out on a date, she liked him so she said yes. But it wasn’t so simple for him. “He said, ‘No, no you need to talk to your parents first because I’ve been burned a couple of times when I’ve asked a white girl out and her parents are at the door. I’m not going through that again.’” Shapiro had a similar experience when he asked a Black girl out. Her mom wouldn’t let her go because he was white.
Gardner remembers a fight in the girls bathroom. Her group of Black friends were yelling at her best friend Francis, who was white, scared that their friendship was making Gardner white. “My mom was a college professor and my dad was an attorney. What was I supposed to be? I was well spoken.” But altercations weren’t usually related to race. “Vincent Reed, our principal, wouldn’t stand for that,” she says.
Jack Kozcela grew up in the Palisades and graduated from Wilson in 1970. He is white, and so were most of his high school friends. He doesn’t remember any open conflict, but each year he was there more Black students enrolled and tension increased. Students couldn’t ignore what was going on around them. “Dr. King got assassinated, so that was in our minds. There had been riots in DC, so that was in our minds. You couldn’t escape thinking about race relations even if you wanted to,” he says. He points to the Black power fists raised in yearbook pictures and the birth of Wilson’s Black Student Union.
Kozcela remembers one time the football team had to schedule their game against Cardozo in the middle of the day because of concerns that there might be a riot. On several occasions the baseball team’s bus got rocks thrown at it when they pulled up to play at other schools. In 1969 and 1970, the team was almost equally split between white and Black, with a couple Asian and Hispanic players.
In October of 1970, The Beacon covered a speech Superintendent Hugh Scott had just made. “White parents are withdrawing their young people from DC public schools solely because they don’t want them to have intimate relationships with Black people,” he is quoted saying.
Scott was describing a phenomenon that began even before Brown v. Board of Education. Fear of integration further propelled whites to leave DC public schools and the city. Black families moved into the city to replace them.
This “white flight” characterized the 60s and 70s and Shapiro, Ballard, and Koczela had a front row seat. Many of their neighbors’ parents decided to send their children to private schools like Sidwell or GDS. Others marched out to Montgomery County. Shapiro started high school in 1967, the year Wilson changed its boundaries. “There was a lot of fear about an integrated Wilson class. This was just months before the assassination of MLK Jr. which led to riots in DC and there was an ugly fear,” Shapiro says.
But Kozcela’s mother was a substitute teacher at Wilson and saw the value in its diversity. “The greatest education was being exposed to diversity: different cultures and economics, how to deal with crime and how to deal with people getting killed in Vietnam, and how to deal with people going to Harvard,” he says.
The white families that stayed had chosen to be there. Among their kids, a feeling of optimism hung in the air, Shapiro says. “We were these pioneers of integration. We felt that this was the way of the future.” Shapiro sent both of his kids to Wilson, and so did Kozcela. •