Racist history gives Wilson High School a bad name


Zoe Mills

To most students, the name “Woodrow Wilson High School” merely signifies another academic entity inclined to make them suffer, full of school work and desks that leave their legs stiff. Students shuffle in and out of the questionably named building each day with no genuine understanding of who Woodrow Wilson was, nor what his legacy is.

Currently, there is a newfound profound awareness and confrontation of unjust names for institutions and buildings across the country and around the world. Such an awakening has taken place at universities from Georgetown, which will be renaming it’s Mulledy and McSherry Halls, names that signify close ties to slavery, to Yale, which houses the residential John C. Calhoun College, a name also commemorating a prejudiced figure in American history. But at our own high school, so diverse and seemingly progressive, students and teachers alike continue with their daily routines without thinking twice about the name of the building they frequent each morning and afternoon.

What many fail to realize about the man our high school glorifies is that he was not only the 28th U.S. president, but he was also a notoriously racist and sexist man who put up a hard wall when it came to the implementation of rights for blacks and women.

From 1913 to 1921, Woodrow Wilson’s administration was designed to oppress African Americans, and ensured that women were obligated to the subjugation of men. One of Wilson’s first  actions upon taking office was to re-segregate the facilities of the federal civil service. During the Reconstruction era, as the south was being rebuilt after the Civil War, many steps had been taken in order to ensure opportunities for African American males to hold federal jobs and to be able to work somewhat comfortably alongside white men in government agencies. When Wilson came to office, he slowly but surely undid this progress, and spread segregation throughout D.C. and the entire country.

In addition to his racist policies, Wilson ironically endorsed world peace and equality in his endeavors to end World War I. As he created his 14 Points, a now famous statement of world peace, he advocated for reconciliation amongst those European nations enveloped in the turmoil of the war. In doing so, he continually ignored the domestic racial tumult that was brewing in the United States. Other countries would discuss Wilson and his inability to allow the citizens of his own country equal rights, African Americans and women alike, using it as ammunition in the list of reasons not to trust or put faith in him.

With this basic information, it is not hard to understand or at least empathize with the proposal to change the name of Wilson High School. It doesn’t take a great deal of compassion to recognize what is wrong with such a name for a school, a place where ignorance is supposed to be stamped out and replaced with a willingness and desire to continually better oneself. Naming any building after Woodrow Wilson, a man with such a blatant racist history, and a high school no less, is comparable to German educators deciding that “Adolf Hitler High School” is appropriate, or that an Italian “Benito Mussolini Middle School” would make a fine academic institution.  

While those comparisons may seem extreme, it is important to recognize the subtle power of name recognition and commemoration. In learning under a roof not only associated with Woodrow Wilson, but named after and for him, what message is being sent? Do we merely recognize the injustice he perpetuated, or do we further it by failing to shame his actions and legacy? Though figures like Hitler and Mussolini are associated with vast and heinous crimes, it can be argued that systemic racism is no less atrocious.

Some people disagree, however, that changing the name of Wilson is important. “I think it would be better to continue creating groups like The Social Something to change the social environment at Wilson, but I don’t think changing the name would improve the school,” senior Christian Hudson says in a text. Hudson understands the desire of so many to have the name changed, but he does not believe that it would truly make a difference.

In contrast to Hudson’s beliefs, senior Molly Wackler believes changing the name of our high school goes beyond it having a profound or direct effect. Wackler sees the name of Wilson High School as a glorifying emblem of an unjust man, and believes a name change for Wilson would be a positive move. “This isn’t to say he wasn’t an important historical figure, because he was,” she says of the 28th president in a text. “It’s just not proper to venerate someone who thought racial intermarriage should be a felony and women should have to answer to men.” Wackler especially believes that as a high school in Washington, DC, Wilson should be taking the lead on the matter. “We shouldn’t be afraid of changing a name because of ‘tradition’ when the person behind the name facilitated the oppression of large groups of people.”

In naming Wilson after the 28th president of the United States, the founders of this high school relegated the oppression of millions to nothing more than a page in a history book: something you glaze over once for class notes, repent over momentarily, and quickly move on from. That was not what life was like for African Americans or women in the United States during Wilson’s reign. They didn’t feel their oppression momentarily and then progress, because they were held back by the man himself.

Our high school should be one that embodies tolerance and free thinking in every aspect, including its name. I want to graduate proud of where I come from and of telling people the name of my school. Instead, each time I utter the name, I always remember Wilson’s unjust policies. I think of his long term detriments to the United States, and how ironic it is that, in this day and age, in a school with as much diversity as Wilson High School, and with such social awareness and advocacy, we continue to pine for equality and justice for all under a roof that celebrates a man that hindered just that, and contributed to the struggles so many face today.

Renaming Woodrow Wilson High school after someone who acted in the name of logic, tolerance, and justice is a vital step in the path to social justice.