Saturday, November 28, 2020

Still Life with Robin: Name That High School - Take 7

How about this? The Ward 3 Washington High School
by Peggy Robin 

I last wrote about the push to rename Wilson High School in a “Still Life with Robin” column on July 5, 2020. Like many things that happened this summer, this matter is still very much with us. Here’s my column of that date: The subject then was what to make of the 65+ replacement names that had been gathered from a public nomination process. Mayor Bowser appointed a large public committee representing all the stakeholders -- parents, faculty, students, alumni, and members of the surrounding community -- who have been studying this issue ever since. 

The field has now been winnowed down to their top seven choices.  

The public is asked to vote again, this time for just one favorite. Be warned, however, that the selection committee will not be bound  by the popular vote. They will take it as advisory only. And it’s even possible they could still light upon a new name for the school that is not among the seven names in the poll.

You can find the poll here:  

You can learn more about the naming criteria and values to be represented by the new name in this document put forth by the study committee: 

If you’ve been a reader of this column for any length of time, you know that the choosing of names is one of my “things.” I like any kind of naming contest. PandasDolphinsFootball TeamsAmazon-controlled towns. Give me a thing that needs a name and I will give you 250 to 2,500 words on what you should name it and why. Or even more verbiage on what’s wrong with some of the popular names that have been put forward.  

That’s just what I plan to do now.

First, you need to know the seven finalists to replace Woodrow Wilson, and how they are described by the committee:

Biographies of Nominated Names 

  1. August Wilson (1945 – 2005) - Mr. Wilson was a playwright who chronicled the African American experience in the 20th century through his plays. Among the numerous honors and awards that he received for his work are the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play for “Fences”, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Piano Lesson”.
  2. Edna B. Jackson (1911 - 2004) – Ms. Jackson was a DC native and educator. Possibly known best for being the first black teacher at Wilson HS, she also taught at Cardozo HS and volunteered at River Terrace Community School upon her retirement.
  3. Hilda Mason (1916 – 2007) - As a member of the DC Statehood Party, Ms. Mason was an advocate for DC statehood and served as an at-large member of the DC Council for 22 years. She was also an educator who held roles in the District as a teacher and assistant principal.
  4. Marion Barry (1936 – 2014) – Mr. Barry served two stints totaling 16 years as the Mayor of the District of Columbia, and two stints as the Ward 8 Representative on the DC Council totaling 12 years. Prior to his political career in the District, he was involved in the civil rights movement, serving as the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
  5. Northwest – This is the quadrant of the city where the school sits. DCPS has other schools named for areas of the city, for example Brightwood EC, Capitol Hill Montessori EC, and Eastern HS. A number of individuals submitting nominations expressed that in naming the school for a location as opposed to an individual, we would be more likely to avoid controversy in the future as an individual’s legacy could come into question.
  6. Vincent E. Reed (1928 – 2017) – Dr. Reed’s career in education saw him hold a number of teaching and administrative roles. These include being the first black Principal of Wilson High School, Superintendent of DC Public Schools, and Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education at the US Department of Education. He also served as the Washington Post’s vice president for communications.
  7. William Syphax (1825 – 1891) – Mr. Syphax served as the first President of the Board of Trustees of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown. He was involved in the creation of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth which became Dunbar HS, as well as the Lincoln, Stevens, and Sumner Schools that were the first African American schools considered equally designed to those built for white students. He was also active in movements for racial and civic advancement and served as one of the founders of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, where he served as a deacon for twenty years.

And now here’s my take on each one.

August Wilson.

I like this choice mainly because it allows the school to keep the name Wilson, with all its attendant merch: the sweatshirts, the gym shorts, the coffee mugs, etc. And when the alumni say, "I’m a Wilson grad," they won’t need to add, “That’s the high school that’s now called [fill in the blank]."I  just wish the Wilson-surnamed honoree who'd made the cut had been the late John Wilson, chair of the DC Council in the early '90s. He was a local civil rights leader before he was on the Council, and to my mind, a more fitting choice for a DC school than a playwright whose work is most associated with Pittsburgh. August Wilson is a better known figure, a writer of international stature, so I shouldn’t be too annoyed that he’s the Wilson selected for the final seven.

Edna B. Jackson.

This would be a lovely choice. There’s something to be said for naming a school for one of its most beloved teachers -- not someone famous. Edna Jackson doesn’t even rate her own Wikipedia page. Yes, there’s an Edna Jackson in Wikipedia, but that one was mayor of Savannah, Georgia – nothing to do with a DC high school. Another plus for the Edna Jackson choice is that there are too few buildings and monuments to Black women in DC. Putting Edna Jackson’s name on the school where she was the first Black teacher won’t go a long way toward redressing the name imbalance….but it's a start!

Hilda Mason.

Another fine choice. She was a great advocate for DC Statehood and a pioneering activist in so many ways. The only thing I might mention against naming the school for her is that she’s already been honored by having her name on the law library at UDC School of Law (alongside her husband, Charles Mason). And she has no particular association with the high school in Tenleytown.

Marion Barry.

Nope, not gonna touch this one. Don’t want the flak from either side. If you want a summary of the highs and lows of Marion Barry’s life, you won’t have any trouble finding the info you seek. OK, well, maybe I will say just one thing about having a high school named for Marion Barry. If they do name the school for him and they carve some of his most famous quotations in stone around the school, please omit this one (perhaps his most memorable) declaration: “Bitch set me up.”  


This is for all those who say, "Let’s just stop naming schools for people!" Who knows what we will discover in the future about the person honored in place of Woodrow Wilson? Why not just pick the location and use it as the name? That's certainly a safer choice. But then, “Northwest” is not a location; it's the largest quadrant of the city – and that's much too broad, entirely lacking in sense of place. If you want to name the school for the neighborhood, you would call it Tenleytown High. Or better still, name the school after the Black community that lived in that location before the people were dispossessed and the land was acquired to build the segregated, all-white high school. That would give it both a sense of place and the historical context, and it would be a small step toward redressing the wrong done to the Black people who lost their homes to build the school.

Vincent E. Reed.

If I had to lay money down, I would bet that Vincent E. Reed will get the nod. He was a popular and successful principal at Wilson – the first black educator to hold the job. He went on to become the Superintendent of the DC Public School system. Lots of people – including some powerful people at the Washington Post – think he did an excellent job. But it’s by no means unanimous. During his tenure as school chancellor there was a lengthy teachers’ strike, and 700 teachers were fired. Maybe enough time has passed that putting his name on the school would not stir up old wounds. We may find out…..

William Syphax.

I have one rather juvenile argument against naming any school Syphax High. Think of all the stupid puns and memes teens can make up, just by tweaking the name a bit. “Did you get your first choice of school? Yes, I got Syph!” Or maybe the first syllable isn’t pronounced like “Syph” but with a long “I”  like the first syllable of “Sci-Fi.” Give me another few minutes and I will come up with a stupidly insulting Syphax/Sci-Fi play on words. You won’t need to give our internet-savvy teens any time to invent any number of these things. Is that a reason not to honor the man by putting his name on the school? Afraid so!

Have you decided how you want to vote? Go here:  

But remember, there’s been no promise made that the outcome will be based on the people’s choice! This is DC, after all, and we’re used to having our voices ignored!


Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays. 

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