Woodrow Wilson’s legacy under debate, community considers new school name

Chloe Fatsis

A new force is working to change Wilson’s name: the DC History and Justice Collective. They planned a forum, which will take place on February 12 at Wilson, to discuss the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson and whether there is community support for a name change.

At the forum, seven speakers will participate in a panel discussion about President Wilson, along with a moderator. The speakers include Wilson social studies teachers Michelle Bollinger and Clarence Alston.

Discussion for a name change took off in 2015, sparked by a petition created by Bollinger and Robert Geremia. The conversation has since continued, but has not gained enough traction to make serious progress in actually changing the name. “This is something that’s been kind of brewing in the community and around for a long time,” Principal Kimberly Martin said. Martin recently spoke on the Kojo Nnamdi Show about the possibility for a name change.

Woodrow Wilson served as president in the early 1900s. He helped negotiate a peace treaty to resolve World War I and was the leading force behind the founding of the League of Nations. Because of this, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For some, Wilson’s progressive legacy makes him a worthy candidate for a school’s name.

Many, however, have taken issue with Wilson’s racist policies. Judith Ingram, one of the founders of the DC History and Justice Collective, highlights Wilson’s resegregation of the federal government and his policies that gave way to the razing of Reno City, a predominantly Black neighborhood, to build Wilson High School and Alice Deal Middle School—schools built for white students. “When I taught U.S. History, I never one time talked about that. In the years I taught, never once did I talk about Woodrow Wilson’s racism,” Martin said.

On December 20, the DC History and Justice Collective met with the Diversity Task Force, which Martin leads, to present the name change project and inform them about Wilson’s racism and their plans. They planned the forum to discuss whether or not a name change is something the Wilson community—which includes current students and alumni—actively wants. “They’re trying to gage if there’s really an overwhelming amount of support,” Martin said.

“Our feeling is that if it’s just a small group of us who are spearheading the effort, and we don’t have a wider community or more support from the community behind us… our chances of of making a change are pretty minimal,” Ingram said. “So we’re trying to take it pretty slowly.” After the symposium, Ingram said the DC History and Justice Collective is “hoping to meet with our Advisory Neighborhood Council to try and get some legislation introduced into the City Council.”

Not everyone supports a name change. “There is some concern about removing a name that has been associated with a very successful school—a school that has a strong alumni contingent who are very proud of having gone to Wilson,” Ingram said.

Sophomore Nikki Keating, who is a member of the Diversity Task Force, has mixed feelings about changing Wilson’s name. “I think it’s a good idea. It’s important to know what… our school name comes from,” she said. “[I] think that before we should change the name we should try to fix the racial problems that are in Wilson.” Keating mentioned a lack of diversity in several clubs, sports, and AP classes as some of these issues.

Both Ingram and Martin said a name change isn’t their main goal—the conversation surrounding one is. “The most important priority does need to be education,” Ingram said. “If we have all those conversations and we don’t end up renaming the school, I think it would have been very much worth it to bring this history to the fore.”

Martin agreed, saying she’d rather have students understand the reasons why people may want a name change than for the name to actually be changed. “I’m thrilled that we’re having a conversation about it,” Martin said. “If it didn’t change, I would be okay with that. If it did change, I would be okay with that. The most important thing is the conversation.”