The District of Columbia Public Schools is planning to rename Woodrow Wilson High School in upper Northwest Washington. An activist campaign for renaming gathered strength during the summer, with Mayor Muriel Bowser and the City Council endorsing the proposal. A school official announced in September that a new name would be selected by the end of the year.
The campaign has focused on Wilson’s racism, especially his resegregation of the federal workforce. Shortly after his inauguration, a history of the U.S. Postal Service reports, “Many African American employees were downgraded and even fired. Employees who were downgraded were transferred to the dead letter office, where they did not interact with the public. The few African Americans who remained at the main post offices were put to work behind screens, out of customers’ sight.”
Wilson allowed a dozen positions filled by black appointees in the administration of his predecessor, President William Howard Taft, to be filled by new white appointees. His secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, broke a precedent of more than 40 years by appointing a white man as ambassador to Haiti.
None of this was accidental. In his 1901 book, A History of the American People, Wilson extolled the Ku Klux Klan for helping “the white men of the South” to rid themselves of “the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant Negroes.”
But Wilson’s resume offers plenty of additional reasons not to honor him. Most notably, Wilson led the United States into an unnecessary and disastrous war. World War I has been called “probably history’s worst catastrophe.” Certainly, it was America’s greatest foreign policy mistake. British and then U.S. involvement turned a central European conflict into a world war. The war and its consequences arguably led to the communist takeover of Russia, National Socialism in Germany, World War II, and the Cold War.
Wilson had long advocated a federal government with “unstinted power,” and as president, he quickly set about expanding federal power: a central bank, an income tax, drug prohibition, the Espionage and Sedition acts, the Palmer raids, and military conscription.
Washingtonian editor Michael Schaffer posits that Wilson is being honored not for his racism but “because he was the reformist, progressive President who led the country through World War I.” Given the list of accomplishments above, “reformist” and “progressive” are dubious claims. And “led the country into World War I” would be at least as accurate.
All in all, Wilson’s record is not a record worth celebrating.
So, if we’re agreed that the name ought to be changed, what should the new name be?
Some have suggested the Pulitzer‐winning playwright August Wilson. Not a bad idea, and it might reduce the costs of changing signs and stationery. But it might not be as clear a break.
It would be hard to argue with naming the school for the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a long‐time Washington, D.C., resident, but there are already high schools bearing his name in Upper Marlboro and Baltimore.
Farther afield, how about thinking of some other inspirational figures?
- Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress and the only member of Congress to vote against entry into both world wars.
- Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman elected to both houses of Congress and the first senator to speak out against Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s unfounded demagoguery.
- Franklin Kameny, who, in the late 1950s, launched a virtually solitary challenge to the federal government’s ban on gay and lesbian employees and who lived for decades on Cathedral Avenue NW, within Wilson High’s attendance boundaries.
- Noor Inayat Khan, born in Moscow to an Indian Muslim father and an American mother, executed at the Dachau concentration camp for her role in the French resistance.
- Crispus Attucks, widely regarded as the first person killed in the Boston Massacre and thus the first American killed in the American Revolution, generally described as African American but probably of mixed African and Native American descent.
We should make distinctions among the people we honor with statues, school names, and so on. No person is perfect. But Woodrow Wilson’s record is not worthy of honor.