When I graduated from Wilson in 2011, it was roughly 20 percent white, 50 percent black and 20 percent Latino . Today, Wilson is roughly a third white, a third black and a fifth Latino. The trend is likely to accelerate. The District is growing whiter, and the majority-white elementary schools that feed into Wilson have more students than ever. The school may become majority-white within a decade.
This is worrying. Wilson is an “e pluribus unum” kind of school, where students of every race, class and neighborhood sing in the same ensembles, play on the same soccer teams and skim the same “Invisible Man” SparkNotes for AP English. My classmates and I saw the flaws with the place and its people — integrated schools still discriminate — but we laid into each other and our school from a place of shared belonging. I remember a lot of trash talk, but we didn’t have blackface scandals. The school’s changing composition threatens what, for me, made a Wilson education exceptional: grappling with privilege and being in the minority. It also threatens a public good more important than a white teen’s moral development: an excellent education for thousands of low-income black and Latino students across the city.
Wilson aspires to equality and inclusion — antithetical to our 28th president’s white supremacy. When Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913, his administration resegregated the federal bureaucracy. After 50 years of integration, black clerks could no longer use the same desks, lunchrooms or bathrooms as their white colleagues — as wearily shocking then as seeing a “Whites Only” sign would be today. Wilson also oversaw the mass firing of black civil servants and required photographs attached to applications to federal posts, which enabled hiring discrimination. These policies devastated the District’s black professional class, but Wilson argued they would “remove many of the difficulties” to black advancement. He told black leaders to respond with the “slow pressure of argument” instead of political action. One Cabinet member said Wilson wanted segregation “with the least friction possible.”
There would be bitter irony in rejecting Wilson in name but not in spirit. D.C. public schools, like the city, are segregated by race and class. Woodrow Wilson High School is an exception, but as the school becomes as white as its neighborhood — as my neighborhood — it compounds past racial injustice. Northwest Washington didn’t become majority-white by accident: Fort Reno and Broad Branch Road had prosperous black enclaves before the federal government seized their property in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, both lie within Wilson’s boundaries.
Investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones found that after a rapid influx of affluent white students to their diverse neighborhood school, “diversity functions as a boutique offering for the children of the privileged but does little to ensure quality education for poor black and Latino children.”
Wilson should reserve seats to keep the school majority-minority. It must resist the racism of least friction.
But to fully reject the 28th president’s racial apartheid, D.C. residents must push to desegregate all D.C. public schools. As long as white and black students are separate, their educations will remain unequal.
There are many ways to promote integration, especially in the city’s rapidly gentrifying areas. The District could expand low-income housing and establish controlled choice zones where students attend one of several neighborhood schools based on personal preference and socioeconomic balance. Under this policy, a plurality of white students might start going to local high schools instead of leaving the city or going across town. Cambridge, Mass., adopted the policy decades ago, and 84 percent of students now attend integrated schools. A school such as Wilson shouldn’t be scarce.
Whatever form integration takes, more white students would attend schools that do not yet have stellar reputations. To the District’s white and predominantly liberal families — families like mine — this may seem too great a sacrifice. Though there’s abundant evidence that at any integrated public school their kids will have good teachers, make good friends, attend good colleges and become good people, I understand the fear. It’s the fear of equal footing when you want the best. It’s deeply human. It also impedes the promise of Brown v. Board of Education and keeps the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson alive.
To reckon with the District’s segregated past, we must address its segregated present. Our civic and social reward would be immense. Thousands more parents and students could build institutions that are precious and life-sustaining and bigger than themselves, with other families who aren’t so different after all. Learning to find transcendence rather than resentment in lost privilege is one of the hardest and most necessary lessons a public school can teach. It takes more conviction and serves a higher end than simply changing a name.