Named for Howard Dilworth Woodson, a Black structural engineer and education advocate who lived in the Deanwood neighborhood in far Northeast D.C., the school was opened in 1972, becoming the first in many categories: the first high school in Deanwood, the first eight-story school building in D.C., and the first D.C. school to adopt as its school colors the color scheme of the Black Liberation Movement — red, black and green. And, because Woodson was a high-rise edifice, it was known as the “Tower of Power,” an allusion to Black power.
When I entered Woodson in 1975, I didn’t realize how grand a social statement Woodson was. I was just impressed with the school’s escalators, Olympic-size swimming pool and modern song written to the tune of “Purlie,” the theme song from the Broadway musical by the same name that featured a Black cast. My mother had taken me to New York City to see the production, which had won two Tony Awards and was nominated for three others in 1970, so I was familiar with the score.
In the 1970s, Woodson’s culture was a microcosm of D.C.’s then-Chocolate City ethos. In my three years there, the student population was 100 percent Black, even surpassing D.C.’s then-majority Black population, which hovered around 70 percent at the time. It wasn’t until I went to Tufts University, a predominantly White institution just outside Boston, that Woodson’s social magnitude became apparent to me. The only symbol of Black culture at Tufts was the African American center called Capen House, named for a former Tufts president who was White. Suddenly, I was a minority. When you’re home, you know it. When you’re not, you know that, too.
Howard Woodson understood the value of having a sense of belonging. His beloved Deanwood community did not have a high school in his day, causing students to travel to other parts of the city to earn a diploma, so he urged city officials to correct that wrong. The school’s unique characteristics attracted students, including me, from beyond the Deanwood neighborhood.
For Black people, education has meant freedom in the face of America’s long history of anti-literacy and school-segregation laws intended to oppress the entire race. So for a public school to stand as a clear symbol of Black hope and pride was nothing short of revolutionary.
Unlike schools that bear the names of public racists, H.D. Woodson pays tribute to a trailblazer who wanted to increase access to high-quality education for Black students who lacked immediate access to that fundamental right.
In the spirit of H.D. Woodson, it’s high time for schools named after relics of racism to shed their outdated monikers and model forward-thinking ideals, which is what schools are supposed to do anyway.