DCPS proposes August Wilson for new name

Anna Arnsberger

DCPS has proposed to rename Woodrow Wilson High School after August Wilson.

Many support August Wilson, a distinguished Black playwright, as the new namesake because it allows for the school to still be referred to as “Wilson.” Others believe this is not a radical enough change.

Chancellor Lewis Ferebee’s proposal was sent to the DC City Council on Tuesday, where it will be put under review and up for a vote. If the Council approves the proposal, the school’s new name will officially be changed by the beginning of next school year.

In a press release, Ferebee stated, “At DCPS, where a majority of our school leaders and students, and nearly half of our teachers identify as Black, we are committed to fulfilling the efforts of social activism and ensuring that the names we call our schools reflect our values and commitment to diversity.”

Principal Kimberly Martin said she was “thrilled” about the new name. 

“As a former English and history teacher, I could not be prouder to celebrate the new name of our high school,” she announced in a message to the community. “For decades, August Wilson’s words have inspired pride, hope, and determination for African American students especially, but for all students who study his work.”

After decades of protest about Woodrow Wilson’s racism, the DC Council resolved to rename the school in September of 2020. A process of public input to decide on a new name followed, involving community surveys to nominate and vote on options. 

While the final name proposal was in the hands of the mayor and the chancellor, Tuesday’s press release cited a survey that “indicated August Wilson High School as the overall preferred name and the most popular among almost all respondent subgroups.”

In that survey, community members had the option to vote for either August Wilson, William Syphax, Northwest, Hilda Mason, Marion Barry, Edna Jackson, and Vincent Reed. 

August Wilson received 29 percent of the over 6,000 votes. Vincent Reed, the school’s first Black principal, and Edna Jackson, one of the school’s first Black teachers, closely followed with 19 percent and 17 percent of the votes, respectively. 

Supporters of August Wilson include junior Marie May, who likes that the school’s “name is still going to remain ‘Wilson,’ however it’s going to be named after a better person.” May explained that this allows the school to maintain its brand and reputation while honoring a deserving figure.

Two-time Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson is regarded as one of the most prominent playwrights in American history. Born to a Black mother and white father in Pittsburgh, many of August Wilson’s plays center around his relationship with race and his community. He is perhaps best known for his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a collection of 10 plays that includes “Fences,” which is read by all freshman English classes at Wilson.

Although August Wilson’s impact on American, particularly African American, culture is widely recognized, some feel that his name is not enough to distance the school from Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. 

Advocates have long argued that Woodrow Wilson’s racist policies and beliefs do not represent the school and they fear that keeping some semblance of his name is harmful to the community.

Co-founder of the DC History and Justice Collective Judith Ingram believes that the change is too moderate. “This allows the school to continue to be called Wilson and it doesn’t force the kind of reckoning with history that we’ve been working toward,” she said.

The DC History and Justice Collective is a local organization that has been deeply involved in the recent efforts to rename the school and they have already begun calling on the City Council to reject the proposal on Twitter. Despite their disappointment, Ingram emphasized, “We will continue our grassroots education efforts, that has always been the most important part.”

Martin thinks that many of the reasons people are upset are short-term concerns. “Ten years from now, 20 years from now, people will likely not remember that it was Woodrow Wilson—it will only have been August Wilson,” she said. 

Still, others had hoped that the new name would have more of a connection to the community. Social Studies teacher Aaron Besser explained, “The fact that [August Wilson] is not a DC native and the fact that we’re still Wilson High School… just isn’t as meaningful a name change as it could have been.”

Besser, like many other teachers, preferred the name Edna B. Jackson. In a survey of 119 staff members, over 70 percent of respondents said they supported renaming the school after its first Black, female teacher. The survey was created by history teacher Michele Bollinger, who felt teachers hadn’t been included enough in the process.

Some students felt similarly underrepresented in the process. SGA President Racquel Jones and Vice President Danny Page were the only two students present in discussions about choosing a name. “It was mostly admin and alumni involved, and it wasn’t something students were really aware of until it was time to vote,” Jones said.

Jones made an effort to spread as much awareness as possible through social media but recognizes that there was only so much that she could do. Ultimately, she is satisfied that the school is no longer named after Woodrow Wilson, but thinks that choosing August Wilson is not much of a change.

Opting to keep the name Wilson does have some cost-cutting benefits. While Martin doesn’t know exactly how much will be saved, she is confident that being able to keep everything in the building that simply says “Wilson” will make the transition to the new name much cheaper.

 Starting when the name change conversation reemerged a few years ago, Martin began asking sports teams and other groups to omit “Woodrow” from their gear. She also planned this year’s graduation regalia, including diplomas and stoles, to simply say “Wilson High School.”

While Martin had been aware of the selected name since early January, she wasn’t able to use it for graduation preparations because it hadn’t been made public in time to place orders. DCPS has given little reason for its nearly four-month period between name selection and announcement, other than logistical challenges such as working with August Wilson’s estate.