DC Council moves forward renaming Wilson High and requiring students to get COVID-19 vaccine

The D.C. Council has voted to rename Northwest’s Woodrow Wilson High School in honor of two Black pioneers from the school’s history. The council also voted to add COVID-19 vaccines to the list of shots required for D.C. students.

Both bills passed on first reading, and will have to pass again before going to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s desk.

One bill approved on Tuesday would change the high school’s name to Jackson-Reed High School, after Edna Jackson, who became the first Black teacher at the school in 1955, and Vincent Reed, who became the school’s first Black principal in 1968.

Reed went on to become superintendent of the D.C. Public Schools and assistant U.S. secretary of education.

The vote was 11 in favor and one present. Council member Vincent Gray was absent after having what his spokesperson called “a mild stroke” on Monday.

The sole “present” vote came from Council Member Janeese Lewis George, who maintained Edna Jackson deserved a school name all her own.

During the meeting, Lewis George said Edna Jackson had to deal with backlash from administrators, teachers and students and “despite all of what she had to endure … she persisted, and she stayed strong.”

Lewis George said Reed also deserved a school named after him, and respected “the compromise made here. But such a phenomenal Black woman and educator — she’s not the person, I think, who deserves a compromise.”

The original proposal was to rename the school after playwright August Wilson, but that idea was dropped since Wilson did not have a particular connection with D.C.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson on Monday said the council held public hearings on a new name, and “it was clear that there was a consensus from the community for this.”

Once the bill becomes law, it will be up to the school system and the Department of Public Works to determine the timeline for changing signage and school-related paperwork.

The school renaming comes at a time when the nation is reassessing how it should address its racial history.

Woodrow Wilson, who was president from 1913 to 1921, was a racist even by the standards of his time. He was the first Southerner to reach the White House since the Civil War, and oversaw the re-segregation of the federal workforce, which had been integrating since the war.

Many historians have argued Wilson’s actions in office led to a regrowth in the gap of wealth and wages between white and Black Americans that has never really closed.

When a group of Black leaders met with Wilson to register their disapproval, Wilson said, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

Wilson was also the first president to screen a movie in the White House — the D.W. Griffith classic “Birth of a Nation,” which valorized the formation of terrorist organization, The Ku Klux Klan. The movie began with part of a quote from Wilson’s own book “History of the American People.”

The full quote is even worse than the excerpt in the film.

Vaccinations

The council also moved forward Tuesday on a bill that would require District students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 once their age group is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The Coronavirus Immunization of School Students and Early Childhood Workers Amendment Act of 2021 (B24-423) has been approved after its first mark-up,” At-Large D.C. Council member Christina Henderson tweeted.

Students are required to be vaccinated by March 1, 2022, but the mandate won’t be enforced until the 2022-2023 school year, Mendelson said during Tuesday’s council meeting.

He added that “it would be fair to characterize testimony as overwhelmingly in support of a vaccine mandate.”

The final reading and vote on the bill will likely happen when the council meets Dec. 21, Henderson said.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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