Amid rising demands for racial justice, D.C.’s elected education leaders are calling for a name change at Woodrow Wilson High School — the city’s largest public high school in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Northwest D.C.
“Woodrow Wilson, for whatever else he did on the national stage as president, he was a segregationist in D.C. and used his office as president to resegregate the civil service here,” said Ruth Wattenberg, president of the D.C. State Board of Education.
Wattenberg has sent a letter to D.C. School Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee, asking him to move quickly to change the school’s name. Wilson High parents, students and graduates are among those who have been calling for a name change for the last two years.
Historians say when Wilson, a two-term Democratic president, entered the White House in 1913 and segregated the civil service, some African Americans who worked for the federal government, including supervisors, were demoted.
The action had a devastating impact on D.C.’s black middle class.
“People in D.C. have been wanting to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School for a while and I want to be clear about this … in my judgment, it’s a very clear case,” said Wattenberg, who is the Ward 3 representative on the education board and whose two children attended Wilson High.
A majority of State Board of Education members signed Wattenberg’s letter to the chancellor calling for the change.
“When we talk about the inability to build a Black middle class in our city, when we talk about the inability for Black folks to thrive in our city, a lot of that stage was set during the Wilson administration,” said Markus Batchelor, Ward 8 representative on the State Board of Education.
A neighborhood group that includes Wilson High families, called the DC History and Justice Collective, has helped lead the campaign for a name change at the high school, and the State Board of Education letter to school chancellor raises optimism.
“We are very hopeful that maybe the tide is turning in renaming the school,” said Judith Ingram, co-founder of the group and a parent of both a graduate and a rising senior at Woodrow Wilson High School.
“By segregating the federal civil service in D.C., he really set in motion or emboldened the realtors, local governors and citizens to build all-white communities and to encourage segregation. It was wrong then and it continues to be wrong today to honor that,” Ingram said.