Sunday, July 5, 2020

Still Life with Robin: 65+ Replacement Names for Wilson HS

Name  To Be Determined High School
by Peggy Robin

As the push to rename Wilson High School gains momentum, it’s starting to look like this is going to happen! Close to 20,000 people have signed the petition to change the name. Civic groups, student groups, and community leaders are all lining up behind it. I can’t think of anything that will hold back this fast-moving train.…..Oh, except for maybe one teensy, tiny little detail. We don’t have a replacement name lined up. And you can’t remove a name from a school and leave it as No-Name High. So it’s time to get cracking on a name that fits the bill.

Plenty of people have ideas on this subject. You can see a list of over SIXTY-FIVE nominations at:

Way too many choices! What we need is a way to winnow down the number to a handful of strong contenders. And then we need to take a close look at the finalists and see if we can create a consensus around one name that passes muster, after due consideration of the following important factors:

1. Enough time has passed. The honored person needs to have been dead long enough to allow sufficient time for the legacy to be evaluated and appreciated. I would propose abiding by the federal standard used for putting someone on a postage stamp – five years.
2. Enough honors. If the person’s name is already on a DC area school, it’s confusing to have the same name on yet another one. Also, if the person’s name is on a major airport, or there are already statues, museums, institutions or monuments for that person, that makes the naming of this high school seem like overkill.
3. Too obscure. This one I’m calling the “Who’s that?” test. If I have never heard of the person before (and I pride myself on being something of a local trivia expert!) and I had to resort to Wikipedia to find out the most basic facts about the person – frankly, they’re just not famous enough.
4. No special connection to DC. Lots of people on the list are highly accomplished….for contributions to the arts, science, social justice, peace…..but they simply did not do any of their lauded accomplishments here in our city. They weren’t born here and did not grow up here, either. There’s no shortage of people who do have that local DC connection – so let’s stick with our own local talent.
5. Can of worms/mixed legacy. The movement to remove Wilson’s name comes from his decidedly mixed legacy. He was a great leader for global peace – and deservedly honored for that role – but his record when it comes to racial justice, especially toward the African American government employees right here in DC – is nothing short of abysmal. In renaming the school, let’s not trade one badly mixed legacy for another. So we should set aside the nomination of anyone known for some great things but also widely reputed to have done some awful ones… poor treatment of the women in their lives, or violence toward family members, or financial hanky-panky. It’s not that hard to find good people who managed to live their lives without any major instances of bad behavior that would be difficult to ignore as high school students are learning about the life of the person whose name graces their school.
6. Not another DWEM (Dead White European-origin Male). There’s no shortage of schools and other public buildings and structures named for DWEMs. They proliferate around the city -- so many statues of marble, limestone, and bronze. It’s long past time for more recognition of African Americans and other people of color, as well as women, and LGBT leaders. 

Now let’s dive straight into that 65+ member list at and start knocking them off.  

1. Not enough time has passed.
  • Ruby Bridges – still alive
  • Warren Buffet – still alive
  • Elijah Cummings – died in 2019
  • Angela Davis – still alive
  • Mae Jemison – still alive
  • John Lewis – still alive [updated: died July 17, 2020]
  • Eleanor Holmes Norton – still alive
  • Barack Obama – still alive
  • Michelle Obama – still alive
  • Oprah Winfrey – still alive

2. Enough honors. The following already have an DC metro area school named in their honor – or a statue in a prominent place in DC, or they’ve got a major institution, airport, structure, or even their own museum here or someplace else in the country.
  • Muhammad Ali – has an airport and a museum in Louisville, KY, lots of statues in various places, a shopping mall in the Philippines, and he’s been on a postage stamp.
  • Ralph Bunche – the Nobel prize-winning diplomat has FOUR designated historic houses bearing his name, over a dozen schools, a building at Howard U. and one at UCLA, plus several others at various institutions and universities – no room to list all the honors here.
  • George Washington Carver – probably the most famous African American scientist – can’t count all the schools that are named for him. Has a museum, multiple parks, historic houses, bridges, navy ships and even a submarine!
  • Shirley Chisholm – the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first one to run a credible campaign for her party’s nomination for President, she is already honored with a state park in New York, and a memorial to her is currently under construction in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
  • Frederick Douglass – the great abolitionist and orator is honored here and around the US with schools, statues, institutes – and of course there’s the Frederick Douglass House and Museum, a National Historic Site in Anacostia.  
  • El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (better known as Malcom X) – over a dozen schools, a DC park (AKA Meridian Hill Park), streets, avenues, boulevards with his name – and don’t forget he was played by Denzel Washington in the 1992 Spike Lee movie.
  • Julius Hobson -- one of the founders of the DC Statehood Party, a civil rights activist, local fair housing advocate, campaigner for school reform, former member of the DC Board of Education and later, an At-Large member of the DC Council – and someone who already has a school named for him in the DC school system: Julius. W. Hobson Middle School, which in 1986 was combined with Stuart Middle School to become Stuart-Hobson Middle School. In addition, there's a housing complex and plaza with his name at New York Avenue & 1st Street, NW.
  • Langston Hughes – the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance – there are schools bearing his name all over the US, his house is a registered national historic landmark – and he even had a Google Doodle in his honor on his 113th birthday in 2015. Now that’s recognition!
  • Helen Keller – the most famous disabled person who ever lived – and undoubtedly the most honored  – schools, streets, medical institutes. She’s been on a postage stamp and on the Alabama state commemorative quarter. Her statue in the rotunda of Congress represents Alabama.
  • John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy Center, JFK airport. Schools out the wazoo. ‘Nuff said.
  • Nelson Mandela. He stands in bronze in the center of London’s Parliament Square. He’s on a pedestal in front of the South African embassy on Mass Ave. His name is on schools all over the world. He doesn’t need another one.
  • Thurgood Marshall. We already have a Thurgood Marshall High School in DC. Not to mention having his name on one of our three major airports.
  • Ida Tarbell – Pioneering investigative journalist, women’s suffrage advocate. Her house in Connecticut is a national historic landmark. She’s been on a postage stamp. I couldn’t find any schools bearing her name, but if there are any, they should be in Pennsylvania, where she lived her early years and was educated, or in New York, where she lived during her most active years as a journalist, or in Connecticut, where she spent her final years.
  • Sojourner Truth. According to Wikipedia, there are 6 statues, 7 monuments/markers/stones, one library, one museum, two historic houses, one portion of an interstate (I-194), one asteroid (#249521), one Mars Pathfinder Rover called “Sojourner”, a postage stamp, and the Google Doodle of Feb 1 2019. The Wikipedia entry noted that there are schools – but did not list them (probably would have taken up too much space).
  • Madam C.J. Walker – The first African American female millionaire/entrepreneur. Has two landmarked properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a theater center, and a business center. And she’s been on a postage stamp.

3. Not famous enough -- meaning, I did not know a single thing about them until I looked them up on Wikipedia….but I learned a lot of great stuff. Hope you will, too!
  • William D. Chapelle, American educator and bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, president of Allen University, an historically black university in Columbia, South Carolina. Great-grandfather of Dave Chapelle, stand-up comedian.
  • Anna J Cooper, educator, sociologist, speaker, scholar, writer, Black Liberation activist – sometimes called “the mother of Black Feminism.” She died at the age of 105 in Washington, DC. Very glad to have learned about her – and it would definitely be worth having a DC school named in her honor – but it really should be in LeDroit Park, where she lived for so much of her life and did so much of her writing. Surely, there’s at least one school in that neighborhood that could be rededicated in her honor.
  • Archibald Grimke - a lawyer, journalist, and diplomat, who became national vice-president of the NAACP, as well as president of the Washington, DC branch. There would be a certain poetic justice in renaming Wilson HS in Grimke’s honor – as Wikipedia notes: “Grimké led the public protest in Washington, D.C., against the segregation of federal offices under President Woodrow Wilson, who acceded to wishes of other Southerners on his cabinet. Grimké testified before Congress against it in 1914 but did not succeed in gaining changes.” However, there’s one strong reason NOT to name the school for him: High schoolers are prone to make fun of the sounds of names – and “Grim Key” would leave them to vulnerable to any number of stupid taunts from kids at rival schools.
  • Hubert Harrison. Wikipedia tells us he was a “West Indian-American writer, orator, educator, critic, and race and class conscious political activist and radical internationalist based in Harlem, New York. He was described by activist A. Philip Randolph as ’The father of Harlem radicalism’ and by the historian Joel Augustus Rogers as ‘the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time.’” Toward the end of his relatively short life (he died after surgery at the age of 44), he backed separatist movements and called for the founding of "a Negro state" in the US. Mainly NY-based, I did not see any indication of a particular connection to DC.
  • Shirley Horn, American jazz singer and pianist. Wikipedia says “She collaborated with many jazz greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Ron Carter, Carmen McRae, Wynton Marsalis and others.” She was born and raised in Washington, DC. Here’s one of her best-known songs:
  • Edna Jackson was the first African American to be hired as a teacher at Wilson (1954). While beloved by many of her students (almost all of whom were white), she also endured much ill-treatment from racists and bigots. Former students are the ones who have advanced her name as a fitting replacement for Woodrow Wilson. She has no Wikipedia page.
  • Mary Jackson, one of the “Hidden Figures” celebrated by the movie of that name. An American mathematician and aerospace engineer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (which later became NASA), she worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for most of her career. Just a couple of weeks ago, NASA named its headquarters building after her.
  • Marsha P. Johnson was an American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen. Known as an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Johnson was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Johnson has been honored on a plaque at the Stonewall National Monument in New York City, is a prominent figure in several murals depicting gay history, and on February 20, 2020 had the East River Park in Brooklyn rededicated as the Marsha P. Johnson Park, at a ceremony conducted by Governor Cuomo. Also, she was featured in the June 30 2020 Google Doodle.
  • Margaret Lawrence, pediatrician and child psychiatrist –  “the first African-American woman to become a psychoanalyst in the United States, according to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where her career began” –quoted from her New York Times obituary. She died in December 2019 at the age of 105.
  • James Lincoln Beill – I came up totally blank on this one. Either the name is spelled wrong, or he never did anything famous enough to rate a Wikipedia entry.
  • Dovey Johnson Roundtree, was “an African-American civil rights activist, ordained minister, and attorney. Her 1955 victory before the Interstate Commerce Commission in the first bus desegregation case to be brought before the ICC resulted in the only explicit repudiation of the "separate but equal" doctrine in the field of interstate bus transportation by a court or federal administrative body.” (Wikipedia). Lived and worked most of her adult life in Washington, DC, where she was the first African American woman to be admitted to the DC Bar. Couldn’t find any schools named for her. Seems like she’s overdue for some posthumous honors. I see a bit of a handicapm though, in the form of a name like “Dovey Johnson Roundtree.” Doesn’t roll off the tongue – or combine all that well with “Tigers.” Would current Wilson football players want to be known as the Roundtree Tigers? At formal ceremonies, when the full name of the school is invoked, will “Dovey Johnson Roundtree” get the respect it deserves?
  • Assata Shakur. Still alive. Also, a fugitive with multiple criminal convictions, including murder. Wikipedia tells us that “Assata Olugbala Shakur is a former member of the Black Liberation Army, who was convicted of being an accomplice in the first-degree murder of State Trooper Werner Foerster during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973.” So….no.
  • Lucy Diggs Slowe was “The first black woman to serve as Dean of Women at any American university and the first Dean of Women at Howard University. She was one of the original sixteen founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the first sorority founded by African-American women.” (Wikipedia.) She has a dorm named in her honor at Howard, and she used to have a DC elementary school named for her, but it closed in 2008 and was re-opened as a charter school named for Mary McLeod Bethune. There is a historic marker for her at her hometown in Berryville, VA.    
  • Mary Church Terrell was “one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and became known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage,” according to Wikipedia, which goes on to note that: “she was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to the school board of a major city, serving in the District of Columbia from 1895 until 1906. Terrell was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909).” She’s had two elementary schools named in her honor: one in SE Washington, that was closed in the school consolidations of 2013; the other in New Orleans that was so damaged by Hurricane Katrina, it had to be torn down. She’s been on a postage stamp, and her house in LeDroit Park is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Oberlin College named its main library, “The Mary Church Terrell Main Library.” Good enough?
  • Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, a free woman of color and a farmer who owned the property that became Fort Stevens, the key fort protecting the capital of the Union throughout the Civil War. Her land is now part of the African American Heritage Trail, maintained by the US Park Service, and her story is preserved and presented to the public at the Fort.
  • William Monroe Trotter. Wikipedia says he was “a newspaper editor and real estate businessman based in Boston, Massachusetts, and an activist for African-American civil rights. He was an early opponent of the accommodationist race policies of Booker T. Washington, and in 1901 founded the Boston Guardian, an independent African-American newspaper he used to express that opposition….. In 1914 he had a highly publicized meeting with President Woodrow Wilson, in which he protested Wilson's introduction of segregation into the federal workplace.” Poetic justice, if Wilson’s name were removed and replaced with Trotter’s! But, think…. “The Trotter Tigers.” Would high school athletes like that? Would their rivals talk about "getting the Trots"? Besides, Trotter is very much a Boston-based figure, using his newspaper to promote his causes. Boston is where you will find an elementary school bearing his name, where his house has historic landmark status, and the research institute for the study of black history and black culture at the University of Massachusetts is named for him.
  • Ralph W. Tyler. I read through the entire Wikipedia entry, which begins: "Ralph W. Tyler (1902–1994) was an American educator who worked in the field of assessment and evaluation. He served on or advised a number of bodies that set guidelines for the expenditure of federal funds and influenced the underlying policy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Tyler chaired the committee that developed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)." Even after I got to the end of a relatively brief but still tedious account of his life, I could not figure out why anyone proposed renaming Wilson High School after him. But if you think you know what makes him worthy of that honor, please....don’t enlighten me! It just does not sound that interesting.
  • Gladys West. She’s an American mathematician, who is “known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS)." (Wikipedia.) And she is still alive.
  • Harriet Wilson – the first African American of any gender to publish a novel on the North American continent. “Her novel ‘Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black’ was published anonymously in 1859 in Boston, Massachusetts, and was not widely known. The novel was discovered in 1982 by the scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who documented it as the first African-American novel published in the United States.” (Wikipedia.) There’s a monument to her in New Hampshire’s Bicentennial Park. She lived and worked in New England all her life. The main benefit to choosing Harriet Wilson is that the school could keep all the signs and paraphernalia that say “Wilson.”
  • Jackie Wilson, American soul singer and performer. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Jackie Wilson No. 69 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. His biggest hit was “Lonely Teardrops” which reached number 7 on the pop charts and number 1 on the R&B charts in 1958. On the plus side, name the school for Jackie Wilson and you can keep the name Wilson on things. On the decidedly minus side, he seems not to have been a very nice guy. Singer Patti Labelle in her autobiography accuses him of sexually assaulting her. Wilson also got into a number of  violent scrapes over the years, the worst of which ended with his near-fatal shooting by a girlfriend who caught him with another woman. No one was charged in the incident.
  • Jud Wilson, “nicknamed 'Boojum,' was an American third baseman, first baseman, and manager in Negro League baseball. He played for the Baltimore Black Sox, the Homestead Grays, and the Philadelphia Stars between 1922 and 1945. Wilson was known for possessing a unique physique, a quick temper, and outstanding hitting skills. One of the Negro leagues' most powerful hitters, his career batting average of .351 ranks him among the top five players. Wilson was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, one of 17 black Negro League or pre-Negro League players inducted that year.” (Wikipedia.) Although he’s yet another nominee with the last name of Wilson, there’s not a whole lot of DC connection there. He played for teams in Baltimore and Philadelphia; still, he did retire to Washington, DC, and he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Teddy Wilson was a jazz pianist of the Big Band Era – played with the greats, including Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. But I don’t see one bit of a DC connection. He grew up in Austin Texas. He studied music at the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama. He lived most of his adult life in New York City or one of its suburbs – Hillside, New Jersey or New Britain, Connecticut (where he was living at the time of his death in 1986. There are other, more relevant Wilsons – if that's  the way we want to go.
  • William J. Wilson is an American sociologist and Harvard professor and author of works primarily dealing with race and class issues. From Wikipedia: “Laureate of the National Medal of Science, he served as the 80th President of the American Sociological Association, was a member of numerous national boards and commissions. He identified the importance of neighborhood effects and demonstrated how limited employment opportunities and weakened institutional resources exacerbated poverty within American inner-city neighborhoods.” And he’s a Wilson. But he’s also still alive.

4. No Special Connection to DC: Only three names fell into this category but not any other:
  • Chief Kicking Bear. Wikipedia says: “Oglala Lakota who became a band chief of the Miniconjou Lakota Sioux. He fought in several battles with his brother, Flying Hawk and first cousin, Crazy Horse." There is one episode that has to do with Washington, DC: “In March 1896, Kicking Bear traveled to Washington, D.C. as one of three Sioux delegates taking grievances to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He made his feelings known about the drunken behavior of traders on the reservation, and asked that Native Americans have more ability to make their own decisions. While in Washington, Kicking Bear agreed to have a life mask made of himself. The mask was to be used as the face of a Sioux warrior to be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. “ OK, so his face is on display in the museum here. Wouldn’t it be better to return the mask of his face to his people in South Dakota? And shouldn’t that be the place where there’s a school that bears his name?
  • James Baldwin. The novelist/essayist is definitely having a revival, one that was kicked off in 2017 with the release of the Netflix documentary about his life: "I Am Not Your Negro." Whether writing pointedly about Black rage or tenderly about gay relationships, James Baldwin is still very much a man for our times – now perhaps more than ever. While he's now been gaining honors and attention that he should have had when he was alive, he's still rightly seen much more a man of the world than as a man of our city. If he's associated with any specific places, it's New York City....and of course, Paris.
  • Nina Simone – world renowned singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. “Her music spanned a broad range of musical styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.” (Wikipedia.) She grew up in North Carolina and then her family moved to Philadelphia. She got her career start by playing the piano in cocktail lounges in Atlantic City. She became a civil rights activist and performed many pieces written to protest injustice and racial discrimination. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, she left the US, and lived  abroad for the rest of her life. Countries of residence included Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France (she died at her home in Aix-en-Provence). Her ashes, as she directed, were scattered in several African countries. I did not see Washington, DC mentioned even once in her Wikipedia entry. 

5. Can of worms/mixed legacy. Taking into account the not-so-good along with whatever they did that is worthy of honor, we grapple with:
  • Marion Barry Jr. was convicted of tax evasion, in addition to the infamous “bitch set me up” arrest for cocaine use. Anyway, he’s already got a larger-than-lifesize statue in front of the District Building. 
  • Petey Greene, talk show host, advocate for prison reform and racial justice, he is someone who turned his life around after conviction for armed robbery and a long time spent at the Lorton Reformatory. He went from being a DJ on the prison radio station to having his own show, “Rappin’ with Petey Greene” on commercial radio in DC, and then hosting his own TV talk show, "Petey Greene's Washington," from 1976 to 1982. That’s where you’ll find  a lot of stuff that you really don’t want today’s kids to emulate. To take just one example: he invited “shock jock” Howard Stern on the show and they both thought it was a funny to have Stern appear in blackface. Not sure what other antics could turn up on those old 70s and 80s videos, but it they move to name the school after him, I'm afraid we might find out. 
  • Marvin Gaye. He was born and brought up in Washington, DC, and attended schools here, including Spingarn and Cardozo High Schools. But he dropped out, enlisted in the Air Force, and doesn’t seem to have kept up any connections with our city after that. He had a string of huge chart-toppers, including “What’s Going on?" and "Sexual Healing." But he came to a terrible end – shot to death by his own father, while trying to stop his father from attacking his mother in his own house. This is a compelling story, a human tragedy….but is it the sort of thing we want our children to learn when they research the person for whom their high school is named?
  • Wilson Pickett. This time the name Wilson comes in the form of a first name. But there’s little or no DC connection for the singer/pop star who was born in Alabama, grew up and recorded in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, AL, and Motown, and lived in towns like Englewood, NJ and Reston, VA. Even if the lack of DC connection doesn’t rule him out, then his multiple drunk driving convictions will do the trick (including one incident in 1992, when he struck (but did not kill) a 92 year old pedestrian. He also was charged at least twice with assaulting his live-in girlfriend. Not exactly role model behavior.
  • Vincent Reed was the chancellor of the DC public school system from March 18, 1976 – December 31, 1980 – and before that he was the principal of Wilson HS. His tenure as the head of DCPS was stormy – marred by a teacher strike, the loss of 700 teacher jobs, and frequent, sharp clashes with the school board over his quest to create an elite academic high school, which ultimately became Benjamin Banneker (something that was continuously blocked during his time as Chancellor). Vincent Reed still has his fervent champions – but if the school were to be named for him, we’d be sure to see all his old detractors come out out of the woodwork.
  • Paul Robeson, world-famous singer, actor, civil rights activist – a towering figure in his time – and also one of the most craven apologists of the Stalin’s regime ever to return from a Soviet-guided tour. Among his honors is the 1952 International Stalin Prize. If the untold millions of Stalin’s victims could speak, they would cry out to us not to honor Robeson in this way.

6. DWEMJudge Skelly Wright is the only one of the nominees who fits this category. He was a prominent federal judge who issued a landmark ruling against "tracking" in schools, which he found had compromised the "right to equal educational opportunity" for the District's poor and disadvantaged (1967). Judge Wright is also remembered for a 1972 ruling barring eviction by landlords as a retaliatory action against tenants who raised housing code violations to authorities. Though often on the side of the dispossessed, Judge Wright is still another DWEM – and thus in an over-represented category when it comes to honors, statues, and commemorative names on our buildings.

Now that we’ve knocked off 57 names from the list of nominations, who's left? Ten names – a nice round number. Let's take them in alphabetical order:
  1. Marian Anderson. Her great Washington story is of the time she was barred from singing at DAR Constitution Hall due to her race – and Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing for everyone from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And what a glorious concert it was! Although she's been on a postage stamp, and she's got two buildings associated with her life on the National Register of Historic Places (her house in Philadelphia and her recording studio in Connecticut), she would certainly be an inspiring figure to name the school after.
  2. Julian Bond, a longtime resident of Chevy Chase, DC, he was both a national civil rights leader and a local leader/statehood advocate. He already has one small memorial – a bench bearing his name, on Connecticut Avenue. Naming the school for him would be even better.,
  3. Chuck Brown was known as the "Godfather of DC Go-Go" -- the city's own unique style of music. There is already a Chuck Brown Park (20th and Franklin Streets, NE) and a Chuck Brown Day that takes place on a Saturday around the middle of August – but Chuck Brown HS would probably be a popular choice with the kids.
  4. Fannie Lou Hamer – Legendary African American civil rights leader, who braved arrest and police beatings for the right to vote. Her life story is one of enormous courage – and why it hasn't been made into a big budget Hollywood biopic, I don't know. But certainly it's a thrilling and dramatic story, and definitely one that high school kids should study. Which they might well do, if they went to Fannie Lou Hamer High.
  5. Richard and Mildred Loving. The married couple, barred from living together due to a racist law in Virginia that made interracial marriage a crime, found refuge in DC. But they always made the point that they were country people, who were forced to live in the city, and as soon as they won their landmark case at the Supreme Court, they were able to move back to the community they loved – in rural Virginia. In other words, they were not great fans of this town! Great people, though! I like the idea of naming a high school for the Loving couple; still, they might have been even more honored to have a school named for them in their own home town.
  6. Yarrow Mamout was a freedman, a businessman, a resident of Georgetown in the early 1800s. He was born in Guinea, Africa where he was kidnapped and enslaved, and shipped to America in 1752. He achieved his freedom at the age of 60, and became so successful that he had his portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale – and this painting now hangs in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Branch Library. Hyper local! Hyper historical!
  7. Hilda Mason was a DC Council Member, and before that, a member of the DC Board of Education. But she is best remembered as a founding member of the DC Statehood Party and a tireless advocate for the movement to make DC the 51st state. The Law Library at UDC is named for Hilda Mason and her husband, Charles Mason, but I was surprised to learn that there is not a school named in her honor. It's long overdue!
  8. Bayard Rustin – African American civil rights hero, labor leader – and far ahead of his time – an out-of-the-closet gay man and advocate for gay rights. While he never lived in DC, he was here time and again to organize marches and campaigns and work for equality and social justice. He has a school named for him in his hometown of West Chester, PA, and there's the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Princeton, NJ – but it's really a little shocking to learn there's nothing named for him in the Nation's Capital.
  9. Walter Washington was the first elected African American mayor of DC – and yes, they did name that great behemoth of a convention center for him. But it's a giant white elephant. A high school would be a warmer and far more fitting tribute to our first mayor under Home Rule. 
  10. I'm saving the best for last (OK, he comes last, alphabetically) – but let me say, this one is the perfect choice. It's John Wilson, who as chairman of the DC city council wrote DC's human rights law, which is a model for human rights legislation around the country and around the world. Before he was on the Council, he led the push for Home Rule. If you're thinking, hasn't he been honored enough by having his name on the District Building?...the answer is no. We all still call it The District Building, don't we? I don't think that really counts for much. Anyway, what makes him the top contender is not just what he did for DC but what he brings to the renaming of Wilson High School – and that is, of course, the ability to keep calling it Wilson....but this time, we've got a good and honorable man who did right by the people of this city. What more could you want?

What more? Well, I won't end here, because there is actually is something more that some people have asked for – and that is an end to all this fine-tooth combing over so many candidates' characters and histories (just as I've done above). You see, everyone is flawed. They all have skeletons in their closets. And the way to deal with that (some say) is to stop naming buildings after flawed people. Honor the site, and the whole community around it. 

There are two ways to do that. The first is to name the school for the current name of the community, Tenleytown. Call it Tenleytown High. It's simple. It's accurate. Why would anyone object to that?

The second solution is to acknowledge the history of the site, by choosing the name of the African American community that was there before there was a Wilson High. It was called Reno City, and it formed around Fort Reno. The community had its own school for African American children, the Jesse Reno School, built in 1903. You can read about it here: In the 1930s when there was an influx of many white, middle class families, the  government chose the Reno City site to build a a new, whites-only school – what would become Wilson High – and so all the Black families were forced out to make way for the new building. You can read about that here: And you can make the case, with a great deal of historical justification, that the fair and proper thing to do would be to restore the original name of the community –  as well as give a nod to the current name of the park across the street –  and rename Wilson: Fort Reno High School.

How about it?

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays (or in this case, in the wee hours of Sunday morning).   

1 comment:

  1. WOW! What a lot to consider. Beautiful dissertation.