Credit: Hamil R. Harris

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Alumni, students, historians, teachers, and community leaders were among the many who gathered at Woodrow Wilson High School on Tuesday night for a forum to discuss whether or not the time has come to change the name of the District’s largest high school, which is named after the 28th President of the United States.

The Wilson High School Diversity Task Force and the DC History and Justice Collective hosted the event at a time when the nation is embroiled in a debate over whether removing the names and statues of American icons found out to be racist really changes race relations in the county today. About 150 people attended.

“It happened a long time ago, he did a lot of good things. Why change the name?” said Wilson student Ayomi Wolff during the forum. “White people are being complacent. That is being complicit in racism … to say that it’s not worth it to change the name just because you may feel like you’re losing some school spirit—me at my school, I’m not losing any school spirit. I’m enacting school spirit by wanting to change the name.”

Wolff was among 10 people on a panel moderated by award winning journalistRay Suarez of the PBS NewsHour. School officials and community leaders say the event is only the beginning of a process to consider the renaming of Wilson High School, and many weighed in on the issue.

Wilson served as President from 1913 to 1921, and while he is credited with creating the League of Nations and other foreign policy initiatives, historians say that in the District of Columbia Wilson segregated the federal government, fired and demoted black employees, and set back progress in a city more progressive than the country.

Panelist for the forum included Alcione Amos, curator of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum; Neil Flanagan, a historian of Fort Reno and the African American community that once lives there; James Fisher, a descendant of the last residents of the African-American village on Broad Branch Road; two Wilson students; and Wilson history teacher Michele Bollinger.

Flanagan said after the forum that the important thing is to continue the dialogue. Event organizer Judy Ingramsaid, “The trend is to change the name of the school and it is for all of the right reasons.”

But John Milton Cooper, a member of the Wilson Class of 1957, disagrees. Cooper, a retired professor at the University of Wisconsin, doesn’t think that the school’s name should change.

“There should be consideration of what this school has been. It was not racially diverse back then. After Brown v. Board, the D.C. public school system moved two African-American teachers to Wilson and they were wonderful.”

In an interview after the event, Cooper said, “I think that it would be sad to change the name of an institution that has stood for academic excellence from a President who stood for academic excellence, who turned Princeton from a sleepy men’s college into an excellent institution.”

One resident from the audience said, “Wilson was a man of peace in his time. He tried to outlaw the lynching tree. Was he a racist? Absolutely. But what he did in his time he was progressive.”

Aaron Rosenthal said, “Where is the line? Jefferson, FDR. This town is named Washington. Are we going to change the name because he had slaves?”

Amos, who was sitting on the stage with the rest of the panel, told the audience: “Where is the line? This is a difficult question. The community must answer this question. This discussion is going on across the country. I think that the community has to decide this.”

“Sometimes these lines are difficult to draw. Not here. This is Washington D.C.” said Ruth Wattenberg after the program concluded. She is the president of the State Board of Education and its Ward 3 representative. She was pleased with a civil discussion between people who had differing viewpoints, but feels that given Wilson’s actions in the District, his name doesn’t belong on this school. 

“I enjoyed the panel because it helped to cement the legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” said Bollinger, the history teacher. “I regret all of the years I taught D.C. history and didn’t teach about Reno City. We are at the beginning of a process.”

In terms of the process of changing the school’s name, Wilson Principal Kim Martin, after hearing more from the community, said the next step will be in the hands of a Ward 3 Advisory Neighborhood Commission. That panel would make a recommendation and would then send the proposal to the DC State Board of Education, and then the D.C. Council.

“I think that the forum was excellent in sharing the story of Woodrow Wilson with the community,” Martin said. “So many of our students were unaware of this legacy and the racist past of Woodrow Wilson, but we will need to get much more input from the community.”