Proposed new name of DC’s Wilson High School debated: ‘Too cute’ or inspiring

The proposed renaming of Northwest D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson High School after celebrated African American playwright August Wilson continues to draw mixed reviews.

“Changing the name of Wilson High School to Wilson High School is somewhat controversial,” D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson said in opening a hearing to consider bills renaming Woodrow Wilson High School and West Elementary School.

“For some, the name change is a bit cute, if you will.”

In April, D.C. Public Schools’ chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced the proposal to rename the District’s largest high school in honor of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner August Wilson, referred to as “theater’s poet of Black America” and who was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame after he died in 2005 at age 60.

In 2020, a D.C. government committee released a report suggesting dozens of names be removed from public buildings, based on several criteria. Advocates of the name change said Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, impeded the progress of the District’s Black residents, many of whom had federal government jobs.

Ruth Wattenberg, president of D.C.’s State Board of Education and parent of a Wilson student, applauded the bill, which would rename it to August Wilson High School starting with the next academic year.

“He’s one of the country’s most acclaimed playwrights, among the writers who has written most beautifully and persuasively about the realities of race in America,” Wattenberg said. “A school named after him, with a theater community eager to embrace that legacy, will be a school where issues of race are alive and discussed.”

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie said he preferred to bestow the honor upon a local educator.

“Frankly, changing Woodrow Wilson High School to August Wilson High School seems like the easy choice, rather than the most thoughtful choice,” he said.

McDuffie would rather have the school renamed for Edna B. Jackson, the first female Black teacher to be hired at Wilson, after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

“Miss Jackson was a trailblazer and a catalyst for desegregation and integration at the school,” McDuffie said. “In many ways, her legacy contributed to transforming Wilson into the culturally diverse school it has become today.”

Mendelson said that members of the public can provide comments until Oct. 18.

Renaming West Elementary School

The chairman also said that the proposed renaming of West Elementary, located at 1334 Farragut St. NW, for late civil rights leader John Lewis seems certain.

“It does not seem to be controversial at all,” Mendelson said. “It certainly honors someone who is a renowned civil rights activist, whose reputation or celebration of him has transcended at least several generations.”

West Elementary graduate Abeo Venzor, who went on to graduate magna cum laude from Stanford University, supported the proposed change.

“I am indebted to John Lewis for his strong legacy of freedom fighting. He not only gave of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that follow to try to live up to his example,” Venzor said.

Shanita Burney, with D.C. Public Schools, said the school system is looking to rename 21 schools over the next four or five years.

In 2018, D.C. renamed Orr Elementary, after it determined that former D.C. Mayor Benjamin Grayson Orr had owned slaves. The school was renamed Lawrence E. Boone Elementary, after the principal who led it from 1973 to 1996.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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