Marion Barry, Councilmember Ward 8 During an interview with LL
Marion Barry in 2009. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Earlier this month, the D.C. Council approved the renaming of Ward 3’s Woodrow Wilson High School. Now they just have to come up with that new name.

Following years of public discussion, a working group’s recommendations, and more than 2,000 responses to a call for nominations, DCPS is seeking public input on the seven finalists.

Mayor for Life Marion Barry is among the names Mayor Muriel Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee will consider. With more than 3,300 votes cast so far, it appears Barry’s popularity at the ballot box does not transfer to the school-naming competition. He’s currently trailing a man with no connection to D.C., a geographic location, and two educators with ties to the high school.

Playwright August Wilson, who is from and wrote prodigiously about Pittsburgh, is currently leading with 34 percent of votes, followed by Vincent E. Reed, Wilson HS’s first Black principal and a former DCPS superintendent, with 19 percent, and “Northwest,” the quadrant where the school is located, with 15 percent. Edna Jackson, Wilson High’s first Black teacher, has 12 percent of the votes, and Barry has 10 percent.

Former At-Large Councilmember and D.C. educator Hilda Mason and William Syphax, the first president of the Board of Trustees of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown, bring up the rear, with 3 and 7 percent of the vote respectively.

After you cast your vote, scroll down to the lively comment sections (there are two!) where some commenters are literally begging city leaders not to name the school after the late mayor, while others write in defense of his complicated legacy.

For all his positive contributions to the District, Barry’s issues with drugs and women disqualify him as the namesake for a school in the eyes of some commenters. Plus a school named “Barry High” may be “ill advised,” one commenter pointed out. (Just don’t tell the creators of the 1996 film High School High.)

“Marion Barry’s name should not be considered,” wrote one commenter.” He was a convicted felon and drug user – not an appropriate role model for young people.”

(Note: Barry was convicted of a misdemeanor drug charge, not a felony.)

Several commenters responded in Barry’s defense.

“I completely disagree, you are a close minded fool,” writes one commenter.

“Marion Barry ensured the willing youth of this city a chance to survive during times some couldn’t even imagine,” writes another.

“He was set up by our government, ran by a racist system,” a third commenter writes, echoing Barry’s infamous statement when he was caught in an FBI sting operation smoking crack in a downtown hotel room.

“Yo you’re buggin,” writes a fourth. “Don’t disrespect him like that.”

A commenter who says they are a student at Wilson HS and supports renaming the school after August Wilson, echoed Barry’s campaign slogan when he returned from prison:

Marion Barry has a record like so many (I’m black) brothers and sisters, but to say that this is the only quality that you will target of this man should be looked down upon. He was a civil rights activist and not only that but stood up for black people when people like you wouldn’t. If all you see is a black drug dealing politician who is a disgrace to the city, then you stand for nothing but bigotry. What you look for is wrongdoing but not for if black/POC change their ways, reform themselves. I stand by August but don’t you dare try to put down a brother who stood by blacks and had a simple slogan: “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”

If the late mayor doesn’t get the nod for Wilson HS’s renaming, his supporters can take comfort in the other public spaces and memorials bearing his name. The John A. Wilson Building, for example, features a bronze statue of Barry out front, and One Judiciary Square was renamed the Marion S. Barry Building last week. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White supports renaming Good Hope Road in honor of the late mayor and former Ward 8 councilmember, and Barry’s signature government program—the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program—still exits today.

As for August Wilson, one of the strongest arguments in his favor appears to be convenience. Several commenters suggest that the city could save some money by renaming the school after the Black playwright and two-time Pulitzer winner. DCPS has estimated a name change could cost as much as $1.2 million when considering replacement signs and insignia.

Washington Post columnist Colby King has lobbied for Reed, his former colleague, who President Ronald Reagan later appointed as assistant secretary in the U.S. Education Department.

King worked with with Reed at the Post when Reed was the paper’s vice president for communications.

“Recognitions of Reed’s record of service, his reputation for integrity and courage, and his contribution to education and to public service would bring honor to our city for decades to come,” King writes.

Sophia Ibrahim, a Wilson HS sophomore and spread editor at the Beacon student newspaper, argues in an op-ed for a new name that’s not on the city’s final list: Reno City High School.

Escaped and freed enslaved people settled in Reno City, north on Tenleytown, during and before the Civil War. Developers later pushed out the African American community to make way for a park.

“Naming our school after Reno City will show that DCPS is truly invested in honoring Black people and DC’s history,” Ibrahim writes. “Where Black contributions are so prevalent they cannot—in good conscience—be ignored.”