From high school dropout to high school namesake

Aniset Idriss

At age 15 August Wilson dropped out of high school. Now over 60 years later, he is going to be the namesake of one.

Wilson was born in Pittsburgh in 1945. During his time in high school, he had shown little interest in class assignments until he became worried he might not be able to get into college. He decided to actively apply himself, writing a term paper on Napoleon that was so outstanding his teacher didn’t believe he was the author.

The teacher gave him two options: prove he had written the essay and receive an A, or get an F for cheating. Wilson was so offended that he refused to give a response and quit school instead.

But his education didn’t stop there—if anything, it improved. Instead of slacking off during his school-free days, Wilson walked three miles to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and began his journey of self-education.

“He didn’t need somebody to teach him, he believed in learning, he believed in reading,” said Laurence Glasco, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who is currently writing a biography about August Wilson.

 “So he had this drive to know, this curiosity, and he worked at it, he taught himself,” Glasco said, adding that, “He probably got the equivalent of a college education, given I think he said he read 200 or 300 books while he was doing this.”

So this high school dropout is quite the opposite of a bad example. Rather, he’s a model of a dedicated learner and the prime example of an inquisitive mind. 

The school Wilson left was called Gladstone High School, though prior to that he was at Central Catholic High School and then Connelly Trade School, which he left due to feeling unchallenged. After quitting the school system and having taught himself at the library, Wilson went on to join the army but gave it up after a year. 

Once out of the army, Wilson began his writing career, writing plays that starred and empowered people of color, eventually becoming the famous playwright he is recognized as today. He died of liver cancer in October of 2005, just after finishing his play, “Radio Golf.” 

Aside from his thirst for knowledge and numerous famous plays, his resilience makes him stand out to scholars of August Wilson as a good role model for the community at a public high school. 

Throughout his year at the predominantly white Central Catholic High School, Wilson experienced racism on a daily basis, said Dr. Sandra Shannon, emerita professor of African American literature at Howard University. Shannon, a founder of the August Wilson Society (which works to promote the researching and safeguarding of August Wilson’s legacy), said that Wilson was called the n-word, bullied, and discriminated against simply due to the color of his skin.

Wilson continued to experience racism throughout his life. Shannon also mentioned that he grew up in poverty and spent most of his life without a father. But he never let any of these obstacles stop him from becoming a legendary writer. He’s often quoted saying, “have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbeliefs.”

This advice (along with Wilson’s life and work in general) are meaningful too, as Shannon puts it, “those people who feel that they don’t matter, who feel that they are marginalized.”

 One way August Wilson empowered marginalized groups, especially Black Americans, is through his work as a playwright. During his life, Wilson wrote ten plays famously known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle.” These include “Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Seven Guitars,” “Fences,” “Two Trains Running,” “Jitney,” “King Hedley II,” and “Radio Golf.” Each of these plays focuses on the hardships faced by African Americans during a different decade of the 1900s. Put together, the entire “Pittsburgh Cycle” summarizes the Black experience in America throughout the 20th century.

  “‘Black Lives Matter,’ I would argue could be the subtitle for all of his plays, because that’s essentially what he’s saying,” Shannon said. “He’s privileging Black life, putting a spotlight and demonstrating their humanity, demonstrating that they matter, demonstrating that their concerns are on par with anybody else’s concerns.”

  As Principal Martin expressed, having a high school named after someone who uplifts Black voices isn’t only important to the community at Wilson, but to the city of DC as a whole. 

DCFACES, a group charged by Muriel Bowser that evaluates the legacy of DC properties’ namesakes, has a lengthy list of school buildings, and public buildings, and others that they recommend be changed. “[Wilson] is just the first of a long list. So I think this is very significant because, like a row of dominos, this can be the first domino that knocks all the other ones down,” Martin said.

Looking back at Wilson’s inspiring life and work combating racism, that’s precisely what the name change is: the first in a row of dominos, the current at the base of a wave of change. 

It’s much more than just the name of a high school.