Legislation overturns Mayor’s suggestion of August Wilson

Joanna Chait, Hadley Carr , and Ellen Carrier

In an unexpected reversal, the DC Council last month rejected the city’s recommendation of August Wilson for the new name of Woodrow Wilson High School. Instead, it proposed naming the school for two pioneering Black educators, Edna Jackson, and Vincent Reed.

Under the newly proposed legislation, the school’s name would be Jackson Reed High School. Councilmember Phil Mendelson said that he planned to gather more public input, before finalizing the bill by November 16. The legislation will require an additional vote from The Council before being sent to the mayor for approval.

The Council’s recommendation for Jackson, the first Black female teacher, and Reed, the first Black principal, comes in opposition to Chancellor Lewis Ferebee’s proposal in April to rename the school for playwright August Wilson. 

 The proposal follows a public testimony in early October, in which the Council heard from community members regarding legislation to rename the school to August Wilson High School. 

“The hearing confirmed that there was some controversy over the name,” Mendelson said at a public meeting last month. “I have to agree with [the] criticism that renaming Wilson High School [to] Wilson High School was not completely satisfactory.”

The switch from August Wilson comes as a result of activism by The DC History and Justice Collective. At the hearing, Tim Hannapel, a leader of the group, said that “Renaming the school for August Wilson would be a colossal failure.” He suggested honoring both Jackson and Reed. 

“Today, the Collective stands proudly with the supporters of two path-breaking Black DCPS educators with strong ties to the school and a unique capacity to inspire the students of today,” Hannapel said. 

Mendelson’s decision to propose both Jackson and Reed was inspired by the support to use both at the hearing. Regarding the order of the names, “I thought I would put the first female African American Educator first,” he said.

Jackson was hired after Brown v Board of Education in 1954 and taught at Wilson until the 1970s. Reed was principal at Wilson in the early 1970s, when the school was undergoing court-mandated integration. 

SGA President Vanessa Ramon-Ibarra said that she feels students are still in support of August Wilson. “At our school, Wilson has become such an important name to us,” she said, ”People are just having a really hard time letting go of that name.” 

Ramon-Ibarra said that there was a lack of involvement of the student body in the process. “If they want something to change within our school, they need to start including us in the conversation more,” she said. 

Vice President Colin Lawless echoed Ramon-Ibarra’s sentiment. With keeping the name Wilson, “it’s more convenient,” he said. 

In a public survey by DCPS last December, August Wilson alone received 29 percent of the vote. Jackson and Reed’s votes combined accounted for almost 40 percent.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, a Wilson graduate, opposed August Wilson and reiterated his support for naming the school after Edna Jackson. “I think something for us to think about whether we want the first [DCPS] high school to be named after an African-American woman,” he said. 

Aside from Mendelson and McDuffie, the other council members have not publicly announced their support for either name.

 Three Wilson staff members testified: ELA teacher Marc Minsker, former Principal Kimberly Martin, and Director of Academy of Hospitality and Tourism Alex Wilson. 

In Minsker’s statement, he noted that 68 percent of Wilson staff surveyed in January 2021 supported Edna Jackson or Vincent Reed. Martin and Wilson testified in favor of August Wilson. •