It is a prestigious name in D.C. education circles: Woodrow Wilson High.
But now, there’s talk of erasing the name of the nation’s 28th president from the school — talk forcing the wealthy, largely white neighborhood around the school to confront its own history.
Wilson, a Southern Democrat and two-term president who moved to the White House in 1913, was a staunch supporter of segregation, setting back African Americans in their quest for civil rights.
A conversation about whether Wilson is an appropriate name for a high school has been simmering in D.C. for years. It gained traction when Princeton University students protested in 2015 as their school debated removing Wilson’s name from campus buildings. Wilson was president of the Ivy League university.
But historians, students and D.C. residents say the conversation should be about more than Wilson’s national legacy. They believe the community in Northwest Washington has to acknowledge that the federal government — after Wilson left office — uprooted established black communities to create the upper-income, largely white enclave it is today.
Organizers of the latest movement to change the school’s name want the school to honor the neighborhood’s black community, not someone whose policies laid the groundwork for dismantling it.
“We want to educate our neighbors about what has happened in these neighborhoods,” said Tim Hannapel, a 1977 Wilson High graduate and one of the founders of the D.C. History and Justice Collective, which is advocating for the name change. “About what happened to these black communities.”
The coalition and the Wilson High School Diversity Task Force hosted a forum last month to discuss the possibility of a change, with the panel providing historical context about the school and its name.
The move to change the name is in its beginning stages and would require approval from the D.C. Council and mayor.
Hannapel said he has heard replacement names floated — mostly honoring prominent black educators who helped shape the school — but has not fielded feedback on the suggestions.
So far, the focus has been on educating people about the school’s history and assessing what its name means to the community.
“I am thrilled that we continue to talk about race, equity and social justice as a school and as a community,” Kimberly Martin, the principal of Wilson, wrote in an email. “We have a lot to learn about the present by looking at the past.”
When Wilson took office, the District had a large black population and the federal government provided these residents well-paying jobs and careers. But Wilson impededthe progress of the District’s black population by further segregating the federal workforce and making it harder for black residents to land public-service jobs.
Wilson’s policies contributed to the decimation of vibrant African American neighborhoods in Northwest Washington, according to Alcione Amos, curator at Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.
In the 1800s, developers sold land to black residents in the areas around what would become Lafayette Elementary, Alice Deal Middle and Wilson High.
On the land where Alice Deal Middle and Fort Reno Park sit — a neighborhood known at the time as Reno City — black and white residents lived close to one another, a rarity in that era. Another black neighborhood stretched along Broad Branch Road, where Lafayette Elementary now sits.
But starting in the 1920s, the federal government began using eminent domain to acquire much of this prime real estate from residents, Amos said. At the time, D.C. did not have local governance, so the federal government controlled real estate.
This process continued for decades until the black communities were gone. Wilson, which opened in 1935 as an all-white school, was built on land adjacent to these neighborhoods. Lafayette and Alice Deal, which feed into Wilson High, also opened as all-white schools.
“Woodrow Wilson created the ideal environment to destroy African American communities,” Amos said.
Maryland resident James Fisher, 66, can trace his ancestors to the Broad Branch Road community. With the help of two researchers, Fisher discovered that one of his direct — but long-ago — forebears was George Pointer, who was born a slave in Maryland and bought his freedom at 19.
Pointer’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren lived on two acres of land on Broad Branch Road for more than 70 years until they were evicted in 1928. Fisher — who graduated from Ballou High School in Southeast Washington and is active in the campaign to change Wilson’s name — has said his family could still own that property had the government not removed them.
“The family was scattered; they lost their community. That was their home,” said Tanya Hardy, Fisher’s partner. “Had that Broad Branch property still been here, James often says he could have easily been someone who went to Deal and Wilson.”
There’s also momentum from within the campus to change the school name.
Michele Bollinger, a Wilson High social studies teacher, said she teaches a D.C. history course in which students study the sullied legacy of Wilson.
Each year, she has students write an essay arguing whether the high school should change its name.
Wilson is the most racially diverse traditional high school in the District’s public school system. The student body is 34 percent white, 32 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 1 percent Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. About 5 percent of students identify with two or more races.
“As long as I have been there, there has always been a vocal crew of kids who have been critical of the name ‘Wilson,’” said Bollinger, who started teaching at the school nearly two decades ago. “They see naming the school ‘Wilson’ as emblematic of the discrimination in school and in their broader communities.”
But there is also opposition to a name change. John Milton Cooper, a 1957 graduate of Wilson High and a prominent biographer of the president, believes Wilson should be judged by more than just his racial legacy. Cooper pointed out that Wilson is credited with creating the Federal Reserve and the League of Nations and signing a law that established the eight-hour workday.
“The good outweighs the bad with Wilson,” Cooper said. “The main Woodrow Wilson — both the man and the school — is synonymous with academic excellence.”
Before a school’s name can be changed, D.C. Public Schools policy says the community must be surveyed about its desires and the cost of a name change must be analyzed.
Last year, Orr Elementary in Southeast Washington changed its name to Lawrence E. Boone Elementary in honor of a principal who led the school for more than two decades.
Benjamin Grayson Orr was a D.C. mayor in the 19th century and a slave owner.
Hannapel said three of the popular name replacement suggestions he has heard include Reno City High, Vincent Reed High and Edna Burke Jackson High.
Reed was the first black principal of Wilson High and the former superintendent of D.C. Public Schools. He served as The Washington Post’s vice president of communications for 16 years until 1998.
Jackson was the first black teacher at Wilson.