1968 desegregation alumni panel highlights Wilson’s persistent racial divide


Ava Nicely and Madelyn Shapiro

“Walking through the door on the first day of school, I was panic-stricken because no one looked like me,” Wilson alum Clinton Scott Jr. recalled. He was one of several Wilson alumni who walked into their former high school on June 7, to relive the intense experiences of the school’s 1968 desegregation.

Six alumni that attended Wilson during that time spoke on a panel detailing the challenges that they faced, and answering questions from Wilson alum Christopher McFadden Gooding and senior Elizabeth Huebner. The event was filmed and the Tenley Friendship Library held a screening on July 24. The event was organized and directed by Wilson librarian Pamela Lipscomb-Gardner and by Mary Giffin, a fellow class of ‘73 alum who is on the Wilson Archive Committee. The project was made possible by a grant from the DC Community Heritage Project.

The desegregation was prompted by the verdict of the federal court case Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which established new school systems that offered more equal educational opportunities to students in all parts of the city. The attendance boundaries for DC public schools were changed to prevent schools in affluent neighborhoods from being dominated by white people, causing the Wilson student body to become more diverse. For example, students living in the Roosevelt High School boundaries could volunteer to be bussed to Wilson.

As a graduate of one of Wilson’s first desegregated classes, Gardner was shocked to discover so little information existed in the Wilson Archives about the 1968 desegregation.  “I was like, wait a minute, that was too pivotal! So let’s get the alumni to tell the story. And that’s what we’re doing,” Gardner explained.

In order to recruit alumni to participate in the panel, Gardner posted an announcement on Facebook to the classes who were at Wilson during the desegregation. They came to Wilson and shared their experiences, finally shining light on the realities of being a student during this era. Although only six spoke on the panel, there were several others in the audience.

Despite the court case’s mandate to create a just learning environment, many faculty members were reluctant to accept Wilson’s desegregation. Alum Lorenzo Calendar, who goes by Baba-C, reported an incident where he was falsely accused by a teacher. Upon being sent to the principal’s office, he was told, “You either apologize to her, or I send you to the school where you belong.” Several other Black students faced discrimination at the hands of the people whose jobs were to support and teach them.

In addition, Black students encountered teachers who allowed their personal beliefs to interfere with their grading, resulting in unfair marks. Scott Jr., among other alumni, emphasized that grades were “political,” meaning they were highly subjective to the teachers’ own speculations and feelings.

As the initial culture shock and fear of leaving their familiar neighborhood schools died down, the new students began to think of Wilson as an opportunity to make a change. Because the student body was previously dominated by white people, being at Wilson made Black students feel like pioneers as they paved the way for an integrated school. Alum Valeria Youmans remembered being “proud that we were Black girls here.”

During this time of desegregation, Wilson students became increasingly politically active as the student council led protests and walkouts. Alum Joseph Shapiro, along with many other Wilson students at the time, had the sense that they were the “class who was changing the world” as they protested against the Vietnam War and U.S. expansion into Cambodia. Wilson students continue this political involvement today in protests for issues such as women’s equality, gun control, and immigrant rights.

Due to the shifting policies and school boundaries regarding desegregation, the phenomenon of white flight began to take place in the District. Large numbers of white students left Wilson to attend either private schools or majority-white public schools in Maryland or Virginia. As a result, being a white student at Wilson became a “political act,” according to Shapiro.

Although Wilson has been officially desegregated for the past 50 years, our school still has a long way to go to be academically and socially integrated. A common misunderstanding is that desegregation and integration are synonymous, however, Gardner explained the difference: “integration is when two cultures come together and share their culture, make another culture. But we desegregated, which means people from different cultures came together and they share space, which is pretty much what goes on here now. People share space, but you don’t really become one culture.”