In the fall of 1954, four months after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in D.C. public schools in a companion case to Brown v. Board of Education, six of the city’s seven all-White high schools accepted Black students for the first time, from a handful to hundreds. The seventh was Woodrow Wilson High School.
Wilson had been named by Look magazine as one of the 10 best high schools in America a few years earlier. Its student body boasted the children of diplomats and congressmen; graduates included future senator John Warner, future anchorman Roger Mudd, future billionaire Warren Buffett and future AIDS activist Larry Kramer. But as the rest of Washington began grappling with desegregation — hundreds of White students at other high schools staged a three-day walkout that October — Wilson’s 1,143 students, 62 faculty members and staff remained entirely White.
Today, Wilson is D.C.’s most diverse public high school: 39 percent White, 29 percent Black and 22 percent Latino. It has long considered itself progressive. In the 1960s, Wilson students protested the war in Vietnam. In the 1980s, Black Power organizer Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael, visited an English class. In 2014, students outnumbered and out-chanted antigay hatemongers from Westboro Baptist Church who picketed after the school’s then-principal came out as gay. Wilson has a diversity task force, gender-neutral bathroom signs, and clubs with names like Common Ground and Gender Sexuality Alliance.
But since before its doors opened in 1935 — to White students only — Wilson has been defined by race. It was built across the street from a Black neighborhood, Reno City, that was at the time being slowly demolished by the federal government. And it was named for a president who wrote sympathetically of the Confederacy and Ku Klux Klan, resegregated federal agencies and screened “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House. Wilson’s beliefs weren’t unknown inside the building. In 1972, an African American sociology teacher, Edward Cannon, told the student newspaper that the school was named after “a bigot.” Wilson was “founded in racism,” Cannon said, “and the odor still exists.”
Any change will be a historical corrective. “Everything Wilson did was to undercut the very people whose descendants now go to the school,” said Chris Myers Asch, the co-author of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital” and a 1990 Wilson graduate. But only one namesake would fully confront the century of racial ignominy that has helped define the school: a teacher named Edna Burke Jackson.