DCPS announces plan for Wilson name change in Council hearing

Anna Arnsberger

In a DC Council hearing on September 15, a DCPS representative announced a plan to begin the process of renaming Wilson. The hearing was on a resolution in which the council expressed broad support for the name to be changed.

The joint resolution, authored by Ward Three Councilmember Mary Cheh, had three purposes. It advised DCPS to reconsider the name of Wilson and other school buildings, redefine their school naming protocol, and convene meetings to propose a new name for Wilson.

Following virtual testimonies by council members and public witnesses, DCPS Communications and Engagement Officer Shanita Burney made clear that DCPS believes the name should be changed. “Because of the level of interest, the momentum and quite frankly given this charge across the country in terms of removing Woodrow Wilson’s name, it feels particularly urgent,” she said before laying out their plans to find a new name. “For our next steps we plan to solicit options for a new name, determine relative support, and propose a new name for this high school… our goal is to have a new name with broad input from the community by this winter,” Burney said. She estimated that the financial cost for updating the school’s facilities—including outdoor signage and the logo on the atrium floor—would come in at around $1.2 million.

Principal Kimberly Martin expressed excitement to finally have a path moving forward towards changing Wilson’s name. She has been shown a draft for the plan, which will become concrete and available to the public soon. “From what I understand, there will be an education and online nominations process during the months of October and November, and then online elections in November. During this time, we will engage with the LSAT, PTSO, ANC3E and other interested local civic associations for their feedback,” Martin said.

Tuesday’s hearing began with statements made by council members Cheh, David Grosso, and Kenyan McDuffie, each of whom condemned President Woodrow Wilson’s racist history and called for a renaming. Cheh stated that “the purpose today is to make clear that we want Wilson High School to remove the name of Wilson,” as it causes “daily harm.”

Public testimonies were then made by Wilson students, teachers, alumni, and community members. Recent Wilson graduate Ayomi Wolff said, “Despite feeling tremendous pride to have graduated from Wilson, I have found great disdain in seeing that name that my diploma bears: Woodrow Wilson.” History teacher Michele Bollinger reiterated the negative impact the school’s name has on students. “We’re trying to create an equitable community at our school and that is disserved by the presence of Wilson’s name,” Bollinger said. Some witnesses suggested new name ideas, including Vincent E. Reed, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and John A. Wilson. But many made it clear that the first goal should be announcing that the name will be changed before deciding on its replacement.

Despite attempts to rename Wilson existing since the 70s, and more concerted efforts by the DC History and Justice Collective over the past two years, this is the first time the Council has observed such campaigns. The Collective was relieved to gain the Council’s recognition after having faced stalling from DCPS. “This effort has been a slow-moving train and we clearly need the DC council to help get to the finish line…. We still seem to be stuck in the same place. No decision seems to have been made, we don’t really know who’s in charge, and there’s no publicly-shared process,” member of the Collective Sally Schwartz said in her testimony. 

Since 2018, the DC History and Justice Collective has been hosting forums, leading meetings, and creating petitions to educate the public and garner support. In November 2019, the Collective met with DCPS officials, who directed them to their limited renaming protocol and layed out steps to be followed. “We left there feeling really heartened that we felt we would see some movement. And then again, they just stopped communicating,” Collective Co-Founder Judith Ingram said. At the hearing, many expressed frustration with not having heard from DCPS since.

Inactivity by DCPS and increased constituent interest in renaming Wilson, spurred largely by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, led the Council’s resolution to be introduced on June 20. The scheduling of the hearing coincided with Mayor Muriel Bowser creating the DC Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (DC FACES) working group to reevaluate the names of local statues and buildings. In an August 31 report, FACES included Wilson in their list of buildings to be renamed.

After Bowser stated her support for changing the name of Wilson, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced the same. Ingram is still skeptical of how supportive DCPS will be in the coming months. “[DCPS] had an opportunity to say, ‘yeah… we’re taking the name off the school,’ and they didn’t, they still haven’t actually said that, and we’re not sure where that’s coming from,” she said. In addition, the plan to propose a new name by the end of the year concerned Ingram that it will lead to a hurried result.

“The next step is the decision has to be made and announced that we’re taking the name Wilson off the school,” Ingram said. She explained that the Collective will keep putting pressure on until a new name is proposed and instituted.