Saturday, April 24, 2021

Still Life with Robin: And the Winner Is.....Wilson!

Wikimedia (Creative Commons)
by Peggy Robin  

As the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, 4/20/21, we’ve come to the end of the long and convoluted process to replace the name of Woodrow Wilson on Ward 3's only public high school with the name of someone who can be honored without a big asterisk on their legacy -- like this one stuck on President Wilson*: 

*Though he was a great idealist and visionary when it came to international relations and peacemaking, when it comes to the evaluation of his impact on the people of DC, his reputation is forever damaged by his executive order that re-segregated the civil service, cruelly and unjustly depriving thousands of Black government workers of their livelihoods.

So what name was chosen in place of Wilson?

Wilson! That is, August Wilson, the internationally honored playwright: Tony winner, Drama Critics circle winner, National Humanities Honoree, Pulitzer prize winner (twice) ….and a whole lot more.

After having jumped on the bandwagon to rename Woodrow Wilson High School in July 2020 with the longest column I've ever written (5,824 words on the 70+ nominees), I have to say, I am pleased at the outcome. Here are the top five reasons why (in Letterman-style reverse order):

Number 5: It saves money. They can keep half the lettering on the school sign, only having to replace the “Woodrow” with “August.” All the school jerseys, gym shorts, coffee mugs, sweatshirts, pencils, refrigerator magnets, and other merch can stay the same. Is there anything that uses the school’s full name? Stationery? Business cards? Not a problem!

Number 4: It’s good to honor a man of letters, instead of yet another politician. There are oh so many schools named for presidents, generals, political leaders, movers and shakers. We need to do a lot more to elevate the artists of the world: our poets, playwrights, novelists, painters, sculptors, dancers, and musicians! Giving this honor to August Wilson helps to redress the imbalance….at least a little!

Number 3: The name of August Wilson stands head and shoulders above the five other people’s names that made the final cut. I previously discussed all seven finalists (there was also one geographical name, Northwest) in a Still Life with Robin column on November 28, 2020. Let’s review:

1. Marion Barry – very mixed legacy there. Do you really want to name a high school after a politician whose perhaps best remembered quotation is “Bitch set me up”?

2. William Syphax. Wikipedia tells us that Mr. Syphax (1825 – 1891) served as the first President of the Board of Trustees of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown, making him an early pioneer in education for Black children in DC. But if you named the school for him, you would need to consider how teens today would riff on his name, either because of “the Syph” of the first syllable (if it’s pronounced with a short “I”), or (if it’s said with a long “I”) its similarity to the word “sci-fi”

3. & 4. Now we come to two more recent DC educators, Vincent Reed (former principal of Wilson before he became Chancellor of the DC public school system) and Edna B. Jackson, the first Black teacher at Wilson. There was a big push to honor both of them at once, by giving the school a double-barreled name, Jackson-Reed High School. Or would it be Reed-Jackson? Either way, it would probably end up being reduced to initials, whether J-R or R-J, to save time. Seems to me that would give short shrift to both of them.

5. Hilda Mason, one of the founders of the DC Statehood Party and the longest serving member (at 22 years) of the DC Council. Together with her husband, Charles Mason, she was instrumental in the creation of UDC Law School. And that is where she is already well-honored, with her name alongside her husband’s on the Charles N. and Hilda H.M. Mason Law Library. She has no particular connection to the high school in Tenleytown. 

Number 2: The people have spoken...and they voted for August Wilson. There was an internet poll and the people were asked to weigh in, and August Wilson handily won the vote. Why solicit the people’s opinion if you don’t follow it?

And now the NUMBER ONE REASON to name the school after August Wilson: MENTAL ENERGY SAVING. You know how hard it is to keep up with changes? If you’re old enough, you remember the time when every CVS store in DC was a People’s Drugstore. Took me years to make the switch. In fact, I still sometimes slip up and say, “Run down to the People's and pick up a [this-or-that]” Though it’s been 75 years since New York City renamed Sixth Avenue “The Avenue of the Americas,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a real New Yorker call it that; it will always be Sixth Avenue to them. And then there’s Ronald Reagan National Airport. When’s the last time you heard someone say they’re flying out of Reagan? We’re still calling it National. It's just much effort to add the 40th president’s name to the airport. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. While it may not be a big thing to ask people to remember these name changes….still, it’s one more little thing to keep in our over-taxed minds. Let’s save our brainpower for the bigger things. Let’s keep it Wilson….August Wilson, that is! 

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

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