Wilson High School.
Wilson High School. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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For every issue of The Beacon, Woodrow Wilson High School’s student-run newspaper, the staff pens an editorial. Usually, students begin by breaking into small groups to discuss current issues impacting them, then everyone comes back as one group to share and choose a topic together.

But when it came to The Beacon’s upcoming December issue, there was no debate—the staff unanimously opted to weigh in on the renaming of their high school. “It’s hands down the most important thing happening in our school right now,” says Sadie Wyatt, a Wilson senior and The Beacon’s opinions editor.

Following years of community advocacy calling for the renaming of Woodrow Wilson High School due to the former president’s advocacy for segregationist policies, the tide finally started to turn this summer. After signatures on an online petition urging D.C. Public Schools to rename Wilson skyrocketed, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced with reluctance in June that she supported the name change. In October, the D.C. Council unanimously approved a resolution to rename the school, and DCPS released a survey for the community to suggest new names.

Based on the nominations they collected, DCPS released a shortlist of replacement names along with a public input survey. The shortlist includes seven potential names: August Wilson, Edna B. Jackson, Hilda Mason, Marion Barry, Northwest, Vincent E. Reed, and William Syphax. Community members have until Dec. 11 to fill out the survey, the results of which are not binding, at which point Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee will select a new name to propose to the Council before the conclusion of the year. 

On a Zoom call the morning of Nov. 24, The Beacon staff discussed the names on the shortlist and came to a consensus: for their school’s new name, they would be endorsing Edna B. Jackson — one of Wilson’s first Black teachers. That conversation turned into their latest editorial, which they published online on Dec. 2. “Upon evaluating the identity and values of our community, The Beacon has decided to endorse Edna B. Jackson to represent our school,” the editorial reads. It also states that Vincent E. Reed, the first Black principal of Wilson, would be a good second choice.

If Jackson is selected, Wilson would, shockingly, become the first D.C. public high school to be named after a woman. According to Beacon Editor-in-Chief Anna Arnsberger, that opportunity was highly appealing to her staff. “A Black woman is really the ideal way to distance ourselves from Woodrow Wilson,” Arnserbger, a Wilson senior, says. “And also, we really liked the fact that she was a teacher, because we didn’t think teachers get enough representation.”

Playwright August Wilson is leading the DCPS public input survey with 31 percent of the vote as of the writing of this article, but he was one of the first names The Beacon staff eliminated from their consideration. Why? Wilson was from and wrote extensively about Pittsburgh. Besides the fact that his play Fences is regularly assigned in English classes, he has no clear connection to Wilson High School or D.C. Renaming a school already called Wilson after another Wilson might make the transition smoother, but in the eyes of The Beacon staff, ease isn’t the point.

“Making this change is not supposed to be the most convenient or the easiest choice,” Wyatt says. “When people are like, ‘oh, but it’s easiest,’ I think it’s kind of just a ridiculous statement, because what’s the point of making a change if you’re just going to choose the easiest option that doesn’t actually make a significant change?”

The staff also swiftly rejected Northwest as an option. “It sort of avoids any type of real conversation about justice,” says Leah Carrier, a sophomore and opinions editor along with Wyatt. “And it also is sort of an exclusive location. Just because our school is located in Northwest, a lot of our students don’t come from there.”

News editor Madison Dias doesn’t understand why Northwest made the shortlist while Reno City, the name of a community that was home to formerly enslaved people before its Black residents were displaced when White people moved to neighboring Tenleytown, did not. “If we were supposed to stray from Woodrow Wilson and his legacy, then Reno City would have been a better option than Northwest,” Dias, a Wilson junior, says.

Although August Wilson is still leading in the public input survey, The Beacon’s editorial has garnered significant attention. A number of Wilson alumni who knew Jackson personally have expressed their support for the endorsement in the comment section, and Carrier says many of her friends at Wilson told her the editorial swayed their endorsement toward Jackson. On Dec. 6, the popular D.C. meme account Washingtonian Problems shared The Beacon’s endorsement, much to the delight of Editor-in-Chief Sarah Morgan. “That was like, what? Everyone I know from school follows that account,” says Morgan, a Wilson senior.

But if it wasn’t for The Beacon, Web Executive Editor Amelia Bergeron isn’t sure how Wilson students would be making their voices heard at all, since much of the conversation about renaming Wilson has been steered by alumni, elected and appointed officials, and community members who didn’t attend the high school themselves. “The adults that are making the decisions are not the people who step foot in the building every day, are not the people who know what our student body is like,” Bergeron, a Wilson senior, says. “I get that they obviously are in support of racial equality and wanting to make a change. But I think we deserve more of a voice.”

Those elected and appointed officials have a lot more work to do if they truly hope to heal the wounds of systemic racism at Wilson, members of The Beacon staff say. Arnsberger hopes the name change doesn’t distract DCPS administrators from getting to work in other areas of racial injustice. “Because the reality is we do have a lot of problems at Wilson. We have a lot of segregation among classes and friend groups, we have curricula that are just really dominated by White authors and White history.”

Still, staff say renaming Wilson, whatever the new name may be, is an important first step, one that couldn’t have happened without the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. The DC History and Justice Collective published the petition calling for Wilson’s renaming in early 2019, but without the protests this summer, Morgan says it wouldn’t have reached the heights that it did. “People wouldn’t put any time or energy into it,” she says. “The petition wouldn’t be getting signed … Now, people are actually given more reason to care about it.”

The fight to rename Wilson goes back much further than that petition, and Bergeron hopes the history of this fight will be honored. “People have been working their butts off for years to have this go through, and I hope that continues to be recognized even after the change is made,” she says. “I really hope future students who are in middle school or elementary school come to Wilson when they’re older, when it has a new name. And they’re like, ‘I know what happened. It was a process, and the student body fought for racial equality.’”

It’s a prospect that is still hard to believe; for most of her time at Wilson, Bergeron thought it would be at least another five or 10 years before the name was actually changed. “I’ve been in public school my whole life, so I wasn’t faithful that it was going to happen by the end of the year,” she says. “But it moved quicker than I thought it was going to, and now we’re possibly going to have a new name at the end of the year, which is really cool.”

If so, The Beacon staff and their peers might graduate high school without Woodrow Wilson’s name on their diplomas, a possibility that means a lot to Morgan. 

“I didn’t want to see his name on my diploma because I know that he would hate me for being Black,” Morgan says. “Without context and without actually making changes within the system that are harming Black students, we’re not going to see the change that we need in entirety, but this is definitely a first step, and I’m really, really happy to see that it’s being changed before I graduate.”