One hundred gather in front of Wilson as support for name change skyrockets

Joanna Chait

About 100 Wilson teachers, students, alumni, and community members gathered in front of Wilson on Friday, June 19 to call for the school’s name change because of Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy. Participants created yard signs with improved name suggestions and planted them in the ground in front of the iconic Woodrow Wilson “Home of the Tigers” board.

Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, is under evaluation by the community in the Tenleytown and Reno area of Washington, DC for his role in dismantling the thriving post-Civil War Black community there. The population was wiped out to build parks, white neighborhoods, and schools such as Alice Deal Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School to serve the white population. Additionally, Wilson greenlighted legislation that purged African Americans from managing and governmental positions. 

 The gathering was coordinated by the DC History and Justice Collective, a group of community members that come together to discuss the history of racial injustice in Upper Northwest DC and methods of addressing it.

 Two years ago, DC natives Tim Hannapel and Judith Ingram started the collective. Hannapel is one of six siblings to graduate from Wilson in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Ingram grew up in the area and is a current Wilson parent. 

Neil Flanagan, a local architect, wrote a lengthy and detailed article depicting the history of the Black community formerly known as Reno City which sparked the interest of Ingram and Hannapel. “Neil Flanagan gave a lecture on his article the following spring, Tim and I went with the same question, why on earth is the school across from Reno City named after Woodrow Wilson?” Ingram said, “That was the genesis for us.” 

The Collective presented to the Diversity Task Force in a meeting in December 2018 and started gaining immediate support. A later forum was held in February 2019, organized by members of the Collective including Wilson students and teachers. This past December, The DC History and Justice Collective launched a website. They later started a petition called “Time for a New Name for D.C’s Woodrow Wilson High School” in February 2019. As of June 24, it has over 16,000 signatures. “I think when we’re out here today, this is starting to look like a groundswell of support,” Hannapel said. 

This is not the first effort to change the name of Wilson—in 2015 a group of teachers attempted to start a name-change movement. In a two page document, Why Teachers Should Vote to Remove the Name Woodrow Wilson from Our School: A Case For Changing the Name, history teachers Michele Bollinger and Robert Germia outlined their reasoning for supporting the name change. The rapid increase of support to change the school’s name, as demonstrated through the thousands of new signatures on the petition, can partially be attributed to the recent rise of The Black Lives Matter movement. “I think today, people are more inclined to recognize that white supremacy isn’t good for any of us,” Ingram wrote in an email, “people now have a good opportunity to get involved and take action.” Some attendees came to the stand-in to protest and recognize the greater issue of systemic racism in the U.S.

Among the attendees of the vigil were a majority Wilson alumni along with students, parents, a teacher, and community members. Although the event was in support of racial justice issues, the majority of the attendees were white. 

One of the attendants at the event was Clinton Scott Jr., an alumnus of Wilson class of 1968. “I was the first wave of African American students, in my freshman year there may have been six or seven [students of color at Wilson],” Scott said. After the Skelly Right Decision of 1967, which ended the legal segregation of DC Public Schools, the amount of African Americans at Wilson started to slowly increase. “At the time, I was just simply told to come here. What happened in my particular case is that I took the city-wide exam. My score was so high I was in the top one half of one percent, so they picked me to come here,” Scott said.

Another alumnus in attendance from The class of ‘68 was Tony Sarmiento. Like Scott, Sarmiento was in a minority of the student population as an Asian student. “When I was here at Wilson, I went to Murch and Deal, up until The Skelly Right Decision of 1967, there were more Asian students like me then there were Black students,” Sarmiento said. “It was the class of ‘68, that was probably the most integrated ever in history [at the time],” said Sarmiento. He suggested changing the name of the school to Vincent Reed, who was the principal and vice-principal of Wilson. Reed eventually became the DCPS superintendent and the vice president of The Washington Post. 

Some members of the Collective from Wilson were also in attendance. Wilson alumna and student representative on the Collective Ayomi Wolff came out to show support. Her role on the Collective is“a student representative and being on the panel. I helped make the presentation during Black History Month,” Wolff said. 

English Teacher Marc Minsker is also a part of the Collective, his role being “to help facilitate programs involved with the school when school is in session.” He attended “to show support for a name change for Wilson,” Minsker said.  His name suggestion was Reno City, because “we need to reflect what happened across the street at Fort Reno.” 

Reno City was the name of the neighborhood in Tenleytown between the 1860s and until about 1935, when Woodrow Wilson High School was built. The community housed about 300-400 black families, many of whom were newly emaciated and worked for The Union. 

Alex Benach, a rising freshman at School Without Walls came to the event to show his support for changing Wilson’s name. “The president who the school is named after is not someone to look up to, so it should be changed,” Benach said. He suggested changing the name of the school to Marsha P. Johnson, who is a black transgender activist who threw the first brick at Stonewall to spearhead The Pride Movement.

 Rising sophomores at School Without Walls, Lucy Chamberlain and Krithi Tamarappll came to show support in hopes that by changing the name of the school, it will better represent the community it serves today. The pair suggested changing the name of the school to Reno City, “because it was a majority Black area and then the white people came and named it Tenley and kicked them out. It’s helping people remember Tenley’s actual roots,” Chamberlain and Tamarappll said. 

On the DC History and Justice Collective website, 26 name suggestions are listed. Some of the reoccurring name ideas are Reno City, Vincent Reed, and Barack Obama. Many people have thought to stay continuous with the name “Wilson,” as August Wilson, Henry Wilson, and John Wilson have a lot of support as well. 

“We met the city council last year they’re supportive, but they want DCPS to go first, they want recommendations from DCPS,” Hannapel said. Also, showing her support for the cause is the State Board of Education Representative for Ward Three, Ruth Wattenberg. “I’ve included stories about it in my newsletter regularly, I’ve promoted the petition and the forum this past week. I do whatever I can to support them in those kinds of ways,” Wattenberg said, who has used her platform as an elected official to attract support for Wilson’s name change. 

“Our next step will be to demand a meeting with the chancellor and we will also be demanding that the city council pass a resolution to make this happen,” Hannapel said. He explained that because the cause has gained so much support, DCPS feels more secure in their decision to move forward with the resolution. “There is very little controversy anymore, but they’re afraid to move unless they see a groundswell of support,” Hannapel said.