Renaming in progress for Woodrow Wilson High School


Image courtesy of Washingtonian/Wikimedia Commons

DCPS announced Woodrow Wilson High School would change its name following an ongoing movement by students and other community members decrying its namesake’s racist legacy.

The Cageliner reported last year that Wilson, located in Ward 3’s Tenleytown neighborhood, had been mulling such a switch, but at that time, discussion was limited to speculation. Shanita Burney, a communications and engagement officer for DCPS, announced September 15th during a virtual hearing on the topic that “plans were underway” to change their name. The school district allowed community members to nominate possible names on their website through October 30th.

The name change comes as part of the work of the District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group (DCFACES), which Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned over the summer to address which figures DC chooses to honor in its institutions. Wilson headlines a list of 21 District schools the task force said it wants to rename.

The reason for this desire to scrub President Wilson’s name from one of the city’s most diverse public high schools is because of his racist legacy.

Although many history books highlight the 28th president’s role in leading the nation through World War I, advocating decolonization, and forming the League of Nations, Wilson’s name means something else entirely in DC. Here, Wilson’s legacy is his resegregation of the federal government as well as his bulldozing of predominantly black historic communities, most notably Reno City.

Wilson’s administration relocated Reno City to make room for what is today Tenleytown, a predominantly White neighborhood. The area also became Alice Deal Junior High School and the secondary school that bears Wilson’s name.

Many Burke students may also know the area today because of Fort Reno Park.

If the school district goes through with the name change, it estimated the cost of rebranding all school paraphernalia would be  1.2 million dollars — just $50,000 short of the school’s original price tag back in 1935.

What all that new equipment and promotional materials would actually look like depends on the community’s selection of the school’s new namesake. 

The school district expected that all suggestions abide by the following six guidelines:

  1. The individual has made a significant contribution to society;
  2. The name would lend prestige and status to an institution of learning;
  3. The individual exemplifies DCPS’ mission, vision, and values;
  4. The individual must not have enslaved other humans, supported the institution of slavery, furthered systemic racism, supported the oppression of persons of color and/or women, been a member of any supremacist organization, or committed any acts that violate the DC Human Rights Act;
  5. The individual must not be a living person and must have been deceased for at least two (2) years, unless the deceased person was a President or Vice President of the United States, a United States Senator or Representative, a Mayor of the District of Columbia, or a member of the Council of the District of Columbia; 
  6. The individual’s given name and surname must be used (ex: “Frank W. Ballou High School” rather than “Ballou High School”).

Michael Schaffer wrote an opinion piece in Washingtonian Magazine in which he made the case for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to get the honor of being the school’s new namesake.

Schaffer argued that Justice Ginsburg’s history as a champion of women’s rights would make her the perfect candidate to replace a notable racist as the nation continues to grapple with its racist past and move towards a fairer and more diverse future.

The guidelines do not exempt Supreme Court justices from the rule requiring the namesake has been deceased for at least two years, however, so the school board would have to make an exception.

According to Schaffer, the school would become D.C.’s first public high school named for a woman.