Controversial legacy of Woodrow Wilson debated in name change forum

Meredith Simon

Panelists met this month to discuss whether Woodrow Wilson’s policies, many of which were damaging to Black DC residents, merit changing the school’s name. No action has yet been taken, but the forum allowed name-change advocates to gauge the level of support for the idea.

The forum, planned by the DC History and Justice Collective in collaboration with the school’s Diversity Task Force, consisted of a panel discussion followed by audience questions and comments. Nine panelists led the discussion, including two professors, two student members of the school’s Diversity Task Force, sophomore Nikki Keating and junior Ayomi Wolff,  history teachers Michelle Bollinger and Clarence Alston, and three local activists.

The panelists discussed the duality of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy: on the one hand, he helped established the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve, instituted the eight-hour work day, and supported women’s suffrage. On the other hand, he segregated the federal government, thereby setting back decades of progress and excluding black DC residents from jobs in government for generations.

“Our society honors people who held backwards views on race. I think this sends a very discouraging message to a lot of young people, especially young people of color,” said Bollinger. In 2015, Bollinger kick-started the movement to change Wilson’s name when she organized a name-change petition with fellow social studies teacher Robert Geremia.

The message that the name sends to current Wilson students was a focus of the forum, which Principal Martin kicked off by encouraging the audience—comprised almost entirely of adults—to “imagine being a kid” and seeing Woodrow Wilson’s name on your school, keeping his treatment of the Black community in mind.

“If you want to name a building after someone… they need to represent the same values [as the community],” said Chris McFadden-Gooding, a graduate of the class of 2012 who is currently active with Wilson performing arts.

Judith Ingram, a Wilson parent and one of the organizers of the forum, said she believed a name change was necessary after she learned more about Woodrow Wilson’s role in Black history. “After reading about the role of Woodrow Wilson in segregating the federal government and in setting back the Black middle class here in Washington, it struck me that it was highly inappropriate and ironic that this school be named after him,” said Ingram.

However, the name change movement has its skeptics. A Wilson alumnus, Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and forum panelist John Milton Cooper put forth the argument that colleges are familiar with Wilson as a school, and that this valuable recognition could be negatively impacted by a name change. In his eyes, “Wilson means academic excellence” to colleges, and a name change would endanger that reputation. Students and parents at the forum also pointed to preserving the school’s institutional identity in general as a reason not to change the name.

Other community members expressed resistance to the idea because of concerns surrounding the expense of changing the name. The endeavour would require that school signs, sports uniforms, and all Wilson paraphernalia be replaced, which would be somewhat costly.  “When you can’t even pay for some things in the classroom, why would [the school] tear up all the [Wilson] signs?” questioned freshman Jake Hetz.

Some students strongly supported a name change. “He is known for being racist,” says junior Hamada Belgachi, however, he continued, “When I think Wilson, I think of a tiger, not a bigot.”

Students themselves seem split: a survey conducted by social studies teacher Aaron Besser of his AP Human Geography classes at the beginning of the school year found that between 30 and 40 percent of surveyed students supported a name change. Bollinger has seen a wide range of student opinions on the name change idea throughout the eight years that she’s discussed the issue with her DC history classes, making it hard to quantify students’ overall feelings on the name. “Kids’ views have been all over the spectrum. Some feel strongly that it should definitely be changed, others think it’s important to keep the name, and then definitely a lot of kids don’t care one way or the other,” she said. “If I had to say, I would say that most kids favor changing it or changing it to a different person with the last name Wilson,” she continued.

No official effort has yet been made to actually change the name, besides a petition intended to bring the issue to the attention of the city council. Martin feels that dialogue itself is perhaps more important than action. “What we learn about ourselves as a school and what we learn about the history of our community is more important to me than actually changing the name,” said Martin.

Name-change advocates have not settled on an alternative name. Some popular suggestions include August Wilson, the iconic African-American playwright, and former President Barack Obama, also include local and national gay rights activist Frank Kameny, early civil rights activist and freed slave Archibald Grimké, and local graffiti artist Dan Hogg, aka Cool Disco Dan