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Woodrow Wilson High School Name Controversy


28th President of the US

“A racist, sexist, and a militarist.” If you heard this description, your mind might jump to dictators like Stalin or Hitler. In fact, this is Wilson Social Issues teacher Colman McCarthy’s description of the twenty-eighth president of the United States, the man after whom our school is named: Woodrow Wilson.

It is no secret that President Wilson had some views that now seem inflammatory, if not outright offensive, and stood out even at a time when the norm included racism and eugenics (the belief that the human population can be improved, especially by discouraging reproduction by people presumed to have undesirable traits–in this case, black Americans).

Prior to his presidency, Wilson ran on a platform of intolerance. According to the National Review Online, he led his campaigning in Indiana with support for the sterilization of prisoners and the mentally handicapped, a policy that he had signed into law as governor of New Jersey in 1911.

Contempt for the disabled aside, Wilson also reinforced the establishment of racism in American politics. His support for policies such as the segregation of the mail service contributes to the idea that he “brought Jim Crow to the North.” Wilson hosted the first ever movie screening in the White House, playing “The Birth of a Nation,” which was later used as a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film. The movie depicts black people as savages and encourages their disenfranchisement. Wilson’s own book, “History of the American People,” is even quoted in the film: “great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”

Despite all of this, Wilson is seen as a beacon of progressive American politicians, an argument that is not completely unfounded. John M. Cooper, a Wilson alum from the class of 1957, wrote a Pulitzer Prize Finalist biography of the president in which he applauds Wilson for his progressive anti-trust actions as well as his direction of the nation through World War I. Wilson’s influence is most widely acknowledged in the formation of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, which is seen as the beginning in a shift of American political thought towards international democracy and diplomacy.

Cooper doesn’t ignore the president’s poor civil rights repertoire, and acknowledges that his appointed attorney general was a bit of a bigot.

Regardless, failure to emphasize the racist tendencies of Wilson, from textbooks to teaching, is dangerous. Stating that Wilson was simply an affluent white man of the early 1900s as justification for his beliefs is not only inappropriate, but wrong. Wilson used his position and establishment as president to endorse a hate group guilty of countless brutal murders of innocent black civilians, solely on the basis of his own personal racist beliefs. Just because German citizens during World War II were surrounded by an anti-semitic government does not justify their complicity in the Holocaust. Just because the citizens of Russia under Stalin may have believed that communism was the best course for their country does not justify the slavery and starvation of their own people.

It’s not as if every single white male in America at the time believed blacks were inferior. The people we glorify from the past should be those oppositional voices, who, ahead of their time, believed in challenging what they saw as an immoral norm. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most recognizable names in American history, was one of those men who took a stand for what he believed was right. Appropriately so, there is a monument to him on the Mall, and both the central D.C. library and a Southeast D.C. elementary school are named after him.

If we are to follow the pattern of memorializing people who deserve the recognition for their opposition to injustice, like MLK, then Wilson may not be the appropriate name for the most diverse, highest-achieving traditional public school in the city.

I support McCarthy and his petition (200 signatures strong) to change the name of our school. In the petition, McCarthy suggests a new name: Barbara Lee High School. Barbara Lee is the black female representative of the ninth congressional district in California (the thirteenth district from 1998-2013), and the only congressperson to vote against the war in Iraq. This new name will make sense in a hundred years when people look back, as we do on Woodrow Wilson, and put some critical thought toward the significance of the name and the person behind it.