Woodrow Wilson High School
Woodrow Wilson High School Credit: Darrow Montgomery

As the racist past continues to bring down monuments dedicated to American historical figures, a growing number of District residents say that Woodrow Wilson High School should not be named after the 28th U.S. President, who lead the effort to segregate the District of Columbia.

The Wilson High School Diversity Task Force, along with the DC History and Justice Collective—a group of D.C. residents dedicated to remembering the African-American families who were evicted from parts of Upper Northwest, including what is now Fort Reno park, which is directly across from Wilson High—will host a forum on Tuesday night about the merits of changing the school’s name. The event is at 7 p.m. at the school.

James Fisher, for one, can’t wait for Wilson’s name to change. “It can’t come down soon enough,” says Fisher, 66, whose ancestors were part of the black community called Broad Branch. “The land was taken to build a school for white children.”

Fisher’s ancestor George Pointer, who was enslaved but purchased his freedom in the late 1700s after being hired out to work for a company formed by George Washington, developed the neighborhood. He became a canal engineer, boat captain, and commander of a fleet that ferried stone from area quarries to the young city.

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

“My grandmother was one of the few blacks working for the federal government and I remember her telling us how Mrs. Wilson came into their office and personally segregated the office,” says Joy Freeman Coulbary, a District lawyer and native Washingtonian who grew up in Upper Northwest.

Gloria Freeman, 80, of Northeast D.C. shows family Joycelyn Franklin and her grandchildren Ariel Coulbary and Andre Coulbary a photo of her mother’s grandmother, Margaret Kelson. Credit: Joy Freeman Coulbary

“It was 1919 and she was working in the Government Printing Office when she remembers the wife of President Wilson coming through the printing office saying blacks on this side and whites on that side. My mom told me the story.”

Wilson has been one of the most prominent high schools in the District and its graduates include philanthropist Warren Buffett, local businessman John Hechinger, and TV Journalist Derek McGinty. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty attended the school, as did former Virginia Senator John Warner and NFL and movie stars from the 1960s.

“Without broad support this effort will go nowhere,” says Judith Ingram, a Wilson parent and one of the organizers of the event. “There have been many attempts to change the name of the school in the past, but those attempts have fizzled.”

Panelists invited to the event include the curator of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum; biographers and historians of Woodrow Wilson and Fort Reno; Fisher, a descendant of the last residents of the African-American village on Broad Branch Road; and Wilson history teacher Michele Bollinger.

Mark Jones, who graduated from Wilson in 1995, says the school prepared him well because of the teachers and mentors that included local television anchors like the late Jim Vance of NBC4, and Maureen Bunyan, who worked for Channel 7 and Channel 9. “They always encouraged us that regardless of our skin color that we could achieve,” he says.

“I knew Woodrow Wilson was a President but I didn’t know that he felt that way about blacks,” says Jones, who went on to earn a degree in English at the University of Maryland and then took a job in the federal government. He says he supports the forum because “it allows for people to be awakened to the problems of the last century to promote dialogue.”

Jones, who is an ordained minister, said at Reid Temple AME in Glendale, Maryland, that the men of the church are having a forum on race relations in this country later this month. “There is a new awakening. My brothers don’t really see color, but it’s kind of a blessing and a curse because we have an administration that promotes segregation.”

Rev. Donald Robinson, Assistant to the Pastor of the First Baptist Church on Randolph Road NW,  says, “It is good that we are revisiting history, but we don’t want to let the baby out with the bath water. Today it is Woodrow Wilson, in the past there was a campaign to discredit Dr. King. We have to be careful.”

Tim Hannapel, a District lawyer who graduated from Wilson in 1977 and works on the DC History and Justice Collective with Ingram and others, says that time has come for the Wilson High School to get a new name, and the process starts Tuesday night. “We will have an enlightening conversation that will continue the process to remove Wilson’s name from the school because of his record of segregating the federal government.”

While other District schools have been named after Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to William McKinley, Wilson is the most infamous and he has more District ties. He was born in Staunton, Virginia, and remained in D.C. after he left the White House. He is buried in the National Cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue NW, just a couple miles down from Wilson High School.

Neil Flanagan, who wrote an extensive history of the community displaced from Fort Reno for City Paper and has for years researched the District communities displaced in the 1920s, points out that today Alice Deal Middle School and Fort Reno Park stand on land that used to be a large black community that the federal government took over by eminent domain. 

“This is a small part of a larger recognition of how D.C. was reshaped by Woodrow Wilson,” says Flanagan. “He opened the door to more widespread segregation in D.C.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and former D.C. Councilmember Frank Smith said, as they left a Black History Month program sponsored by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia at UDC, that they were unaware of the discussion to change the name of Wilson High School.

“Ballou High School is named after a racist white person and so is Woodrow Wilson,” says Smith, founder of the African American Civil War Museum. “It is kind of ironic these schools were named back during a time when D.C. was segregated … Now that blacks are in these schools the names need to change … Thank God those times have changed.”