The Wash
Woodrow Wilson High School
Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington is pictured on Dec. 1. (Aaron Schaffer/The Wash)

Thousands debate new name for Woodrow Wilson High School

The District will soon be a step closer to renaming the high school. But it could be a long process.

The endorsements have been published. Thousands of votes have been cast so far. But nobody knows the eventual outcome in the fight to rename Woodrow Wilson High School, the District’s largest public high school.

Seniors don’t even know if the name will be on their diplomas.

“I’d love to graduate with the new name,” said Wilson senior Keyla Sejas, who said she’d “finally be happy at the school I attended.”

“I’m hoping that the class of 2022 can graduate with a new name,” Sejas said. “If it’s not me, hopefully, them.”

With or without Wilson?

Amid a nationwide reckoning over race and racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd this summer, Sejas said she organized a sit-in with a friend at Fort Reno Park.

The park is across the street from the high school and is the site of a Civil War-era fort that is the highest-elevation natural point in the District.

“It was really intense,” Sejas said. “We wanted to see change because it’s 2020. It’s about time.”

The DC Board of Education decided to name the school for Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, in 1932. Wilson, who segregated the federal government, died in 1924. Only white students attended the school until the late 1960s.

In the past year, universities with schools named after Wilson — most notably Princeton University — have decided to rename them.

In Washington, activists have been fighting for the high school’s name to be changed for more than a year. In September, DCPS announced that it supported the renaming.

Wilson Alumni Association President Damon Cordom told The Wash that the school’s alumni that he has heard from have been split on the name change, with graduates before 1960 largely advocating for the name to stay the same.

Since the DC Public Schools system unveiled a slate of seven new, possible names for the school on Nov. 19, there’s been a vocal response.

More than 5,200 people have voted in a DC Public Schools (DCPS) poll to gauge support for the new names. Leading the poll is August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who has so far received 31% of the vote.

Poll

Dozens of voters wrote that they supported renaming the school after the playwright because of the ease and cost. But he’s notably the only person on the list who does not have a stated connection to the District, and his inclusion on the list has given some people pause.

“I feel like they went hunting for a Wilson to keep the same name,” said Wilson parent Elizabeth Tsehai. “And that that doesn’t take at all into consideration the harm.”

“And so to try to make this a money thing is also disingenuous because you cannot put a price on the toll this has taken on Black students.”

DCPS referred questions about how Wilson’s name was chosen to DC FACES, the District’s working group for renaming local spaces. DC FACES did not respond to a request for comment.

“It would be better to make a clean break with the [Woodrow Wilson] legacy,” one person wrote on the poll. “August Wilson is one of our great playwrights, and we should honor him. Just not in this way.”

“If you step back a minute and think, ‘what is the goal of a new name?’ Well, it has a lot of repair work to do,” said Tim Hannapel, a lawyer and Wilson graduate who is a leader of the DC History and Justice Collective. “My own view is that keeping Wilson as a means of convenience or nostalgia just doesn’t get there.”

One person, who commented on the poll put things more bluntly: “Why choose August Wilson? To save on stationery?”

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A banner reading “Wilson Tigers” next to the school’s football field. More than 30% of poll participants have voted for the school to be renamed for August Wilson (Aaron Schaffer/The Wash)

‘We are the ones who attend the school’

Sejas and Racquel Jones, a Wilson senior who is the president of the school’s Student Government Association, said they wanted to be heard — and that their voices should carry more weight because they’re the ones who have to attend the school every weekday.

“It’s just a little irritating that at the end of the process, when we’re finally like making a change, like, it’s alumni and other people, community members that weren’t even in the fight from the jump,” said Jones, that “their opinions have more value than a lot of students and people that were praying for this from the beginning.”

“I honestly think it should be the students because we are the ones who attend the school,” said Sejas. “We’re the ones who are going to the school. We’re the ones who are experiencing everything under the school.”

Noting that high school is supposed to be a time for self-discovery, Sejas said that “it’s really hard to do that when like you’re going to school named after a racist; someone who did not care about your well-being; someone who did things that were awful and did not help your people.”

According to Jones, compounding the challenge was difficulty communicating with students, especially amid the pandemic.

Jones said she felt that the process was more advertised to community members and alumni. She said she only learned about it after attending a Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) meeting, and had to take to social media to advertise it.

If she didn’t attend that meeting, Jones said, “nobody would have known at all.”

The DC Public Schools (DCPS) system says Friday, Dec. 11, will be the last day to vote on a public poll on the seven nominees. After that, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser will pick a name to recommend to D.C. Council, which will have the final say on a new name.

In a written statement provided to The Wash by a spokesperson, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she is “most interested in seeing a further breakdown of the data; specifically, how votes are distributed among our students and the alumni community. This survey is not the final metric for selecting a new name, and the Council will need to independently evaluate whatever proposal the Mayor and Chancellor send to us for approval.”

Aaron Schaffer

Aaron Schaffer

Aaron Schaffer is a journalist who writes about the Friendship Heights and Tenleytown neighborhoods for The Wash. He has written extensively about foreign lobbying and influence in Washington.

1 comment

Leave a Reply to Carolyn Nicholas Cancel reply

  • Hilda Mason believed that education is the foundation of community development and was a tireless advocate and supporter for DC public schools.
    She was a teacher, counselor, and assistant principal in the DC Public School System for 19 years, until she was elected to the Board of Education from Ward 4 from 1972 – 1977, when she was appointed to the DC Council to fulfill the unexpired term of Julius Hobson, Sr. on the DC Council.

    While a member of the D.C. Board of Education, Hilda helped to bring more efficient management to the Board and pressed for the issues of most importance to her, including greater involvement of parents and the community in the education decision-making process; adequate funding for schools; periodic health examinations of students; further emphasis on extending the age range of the student population, particularly by increasing the availability of early childhood education; reduction in class sizes; and equalization of resources between schools in lower-income areas of the city and schools in more affluent areas.

    Hilda opposed any reduction in the number of teachers predicated on declining enrollment, unfunded pay raises which always seemed to result in reduced staffing, and wholesale reduction in the number of schools, though she believed that some of the school buildings were too large and parts of those buildings could be diverted to other uses. While a member of the D.C. Board of Education, Hilda founded the Ward IV Council on Education.

    Hilda Mason also was a tireless worker for civil rights and equal justice in the Community, and a tireless fighter for DC Statehood. Re-naming Wilson Sr. High School for her is an honor that she certainly has earned for her long term dedication to the Schools and the citizens of the District of Columbia.

    Hilda Mason gave her all to providing a quality education to District of Columbia students, her years of commitment and dedication to statehood for the District of Columbia, and to improving the quality of life for residents of the District of Columbia, but, Hilda Mason has not received recognition for any of that. The statement about her on the Public Input on New Name for DCPS’ Ward 3 High School site speaks very little to her lifelong earnest dedication and commitment to providing a quality education for DC Public School students and improving the quality of life of all DC residents, and statehood for the District of Columbia.

    To quote The Washington Informer: “Of the individuals for whom the school will be renamed, our vote is for Hilda Howland Mason — a teacher, counselor and administrator in the D.C. Public Schools for 19 years. Mason, the self-proclaimed “Grandmother of the World,” was elected to the Board of Education from Ward 4 from 1972 — 1977 and later appointed to the D.C. Council to fulfill the unexpired term of Julius Hobson Sr. of the Statehood Party. A forceful Statehood advocate, beloved across the District’s eight wards, she was later elected to the at-large Council seat in a special election in July 1977, later winning reelection four more times.

    Hilda Mason is a forgotten D.C. heroine whose contributions to the District should be taught and whose legacy should not be forgotten.”

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