Mayor Bowser calls to rename Wilson

Chau Nguyen

During a live press conference on June 30, Mayor Muriel Bowser stated that Woodrow Wilson High School should be renamed. In light of the 28th U.S. President’s critically reevaluated actions towards the African American community, Bowser’s statement is among the increasing number of voices advocating for the District’s largest high school’s name change.

“It should be changed, and I say that reluctantly […] because we have been through this discussion and how people attached a lot of significance to their alma mater,” Bowser said in a response to questions about her personal opinion on renaming the school. “We have come to an important moment where people are shedding that attachment.”

 Bowser is also assembling a task force which, according to a statement from DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, will “explore a District-wide renaming policy” in order to examine statues or buildings with “historical references” on whether and how they need amending.

“I think the legacy of President Wilson has been appropriately disavowed, particularly impactful here in the district,” Bowser stated regarding her stance on Wilson’s racist actions. As president, Woodrow Wilson allowed cabinet members to segregate their respective departments and formalized segregation of the federal workforce. The elimination of positions representative to African Americans was a significant hindrance to the growth of D.C’s Black middle class.

Although debates surrounding Wilson’s racist legacy have been occasionally brought up over the years, recently the movement to rename Wilson High School gained substantial momentum as historical names and statues are being reexamined across the country. One notable example was the gathering on June 19 of approximately 100 Wilson teachers, students, alumni and community members creating and planting signs with name suggestions in front of Wilson’s “Home of the Tigers” board.

“We are heartened by Mayor Bowser’s support,” Judith Ingram, co-founder of DC History and Justice Collective, stressed the significance of Bowser’s statement on efforts carried out by the group over the years. DC History and Justice Collective, a local community group established in 2018 by Wilson alumni, parents and residents in the neighborhood, has been one of the forefront forces promoting a change in the high school’s name. They have also been working to further educate others on the historically racial injustices against African Americans that characterize the Northwest region of DC. Initiatives taken to achieve these goals include writing letters to the Chancellor of DCPS, organizing a sit-in and march, speaking to the media, and starting an online petition with close to 20,000 people signing as of July 3. The group is also willing to provide Bowser’s task force with information needed to make decisions “in the best interests of the people of DC,” according to Ingram.

According to DCPS School Naming Policy, the community must be surveyed by the Office of Family and Public Engagement (OFPE) about the potential renaming of an existing school, and the cost of implementation must also be analyzed by the Office of Chief Operating Office (OCOO). From these inputs, a recommendation will be made to Chancellor Ferebee, who determines whether the rename proposal should move forward. Mayor Bowser will have the final decision on any new school name.

In the past, several schools across the District have been renamed to better reflect the DCPS vision of missions and values. In 2018, Benjamin Orr Elementary in Southeast DC changed its name to Lawrence E. Boone Elementary. Following the discovery that Benjamin Orr, a DC mayor in the 1800s whom the campus was initially named after, was a slave owner, the majorly black student body proposed the name of Lawrence E. Boone—the school’s African American principal from 1973 to 1996—to embody the community values in the Southern quadrants of DC. The DC Council voted unanimously to approve the change.

Ingram expressed her optimism about the task force making the same decision for Wilson as for Lawrence E. Boone Elementary, noting the recent transformation in public awareness regarding Black history. “The question has to be not “if” but “when” the task force arrives at that conclusion. Today, DC residents see Woodrow Wilson very differently than they did two years ago, and they evaluate their own values through the lens of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.”