Wilson community brainstorms ideas for name change

Charlotte Guy and Emily Mulderig

The Wilson community has been granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—changing the school’s namesake, Woodrow Wilson, to a more deserving figure. Currently, parents, faculty, and students alike are overflowing with a variety of ideas for possible replacements. 

 The decision comes after years of community advocacy calling for a new name that would better represent the diversity of the student body. For many community members, the fact that Wilson was not only a racist, but that his policies directly impacted the land our school is built on, warrants a name change to better reflect our pursuit for equity. 

SGA President Racquel Jones has taken to Instagram to encourage fellow students to submit their ideas for the new name via DCPS’s online form. “We’re the ones actually going to the school and going through this right now, we should be more involved in the changing of the name,” Jones said. 

Jones’s personal choice is former DC Mayor Marion Barry, remembered for his advocacy for civil rights. “A lot of kids expressed it was really important to them that the school be named after a person of color or Black person just because [the new name] should be representative of the Wilson community,” Jones said. “[Barry’s] legacy still lives on in DC today so I think that that’s the best bet.”

Social studies teacher Michele Bollinger also noted some local figures as potential namesakes. “As a DC history teacher I really value a lot of the people who have made our city what it is who are not recognized,” said Bollinger, pointing to abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, among others. “I [also] like a woman named Hilda Mason, who was an African American woman, a teacher who then served on the city council and is best-known for her advocacy of DC statehood,” Bollinger said. 

The DC History and Justice Collective was formed in 2018 to bring awareness to the history of Tenleytown, specifically Reno City, and advocate for the change of Wilson’s name. Ayomi Wolff, a class of 2020 Wilson graduate, is the student representative on the Collective. Wolff didn’t endorse a particular name, but stressed the importance of choosing a person of color, noting that, “racist legacies are given value, when other legacies that have a basis in BIPOC culture and activism and intellect are not given that same courtesy.”

The Collective has compiled a list of community suggestions from the last few years, ranging from the national figures like the Obamas and Langston Hughes, to local figures like DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. 

Also on the Collective’s list is Reno City High School, which some believe would appropriately memorialize the once-thriving Black community that was decimated shortly before the construction of Wilson. Another regional alternative is Tenleytown High School, which was supported by a class of 1961 graduate Hugo A. Keesing in the Washington Post.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has also been circulating as a possible option. “[Ginsburg] just came to mind for me because the Wilson community really got the ball rolling for renaming the school right around when she passed,” said sophomore Jacob Shapiro.

However, DCPS outlined that potential namesakes must have been deceased for at least two years, effectively ruling Ginsburg out. This criterion does not pertain to certain local and federal government positions including representatives of Congress; therefore, Congressman John Lewis is an eligible option.

 “Lewis has recently passed away in the last few months and I feel like he has been one of the most prominent civil rights leaders throughout the United States,” junior Dillon Johnson said in support of the social justice champion. 

The idea of choosing another figure with the last name Wilson is another common proposal, as it’s a way to preserve school identity while paying homage to a more deserving historical figure. Popular among students is August Wilson, a Black playwright who wrote “Fences,” which Wilson students read in their freshman English class.

Social studies teacher Aaron Besser has discussed the possibility of a name change with his AP Human Geography students for a number of years now. “August Wilson is a common name that people just throw out there like, ‘oh he’s another Wilson.’ Everyone who goes to our high school reads ‘Fences’ and so there’s a nice connection there.” 

According to junior Taylor Lewis-Richardson, “a lot of people think we should change the name to August Wilson so [that] we can keep the Wilson part, keep a lot of the sports teams, and not change too much around the building.” 

Others feel choosing another Wilson fails to symbolize a drastic enough change given the magnitude of this opportunity. 

“I understand people’s emotional attachment to [the name Wilson] and I respect that connection; however, I think we should be open—and ultimately we would thrive with—a name that was completely new and different,” said Bollinger, clarifying that, “we don’t erase inequities by changing the name.”

Vincent Reed, Wilson’s first Black principal and former DCPS superintendent, has recently been endorsed as a replacement twice in the Washington Post. Writers cite his lasting positive legacy and transformation of the school system as ample basis for his consideration.

Similarly Edna Jackson—one of Wilson’s first Black teachers—has been supported for consideration in a Post article by 1962 alumnus Andy Moursund. Moursund explained Jackson is remembered by her former students, including himself, as an inspiring teacher who truly challenged her students to be critical thinkers.

Regardless of which name is chosen, addressing inequity can’t end here. “It’s not about just changing the name and calling it a day,” said Wolff. While consensus on what the new name should be has not yet been reached, there is agreement that this is just the first step in working towards a more equitable future.