How W.T. Woodson’s Past Affects Students Today

Caleb Faulkerson, Staff Writer

Today, W.T. Woodson High School is ranked at 60th place among the most diverse high schools in northern Virginia according to publicschoolreview.com, but this hasn’t always been the case. 

Woodson High finds its grossly overlooked origins in the segregationist south of the 1960s. Virginia schools at the time were incentivized to remain “separate but equal,” with white and black students each having their own respective schools.

Schools that refused to comply with this bigoted standard perpetuated by Democratic Senator Harry Byrd were shunned and excluded from state funding. W.T. Woodson High School, named for the Fairfax superintendent, complied with Byrd’s standard when it opened as an all-white high school in 1962.

Bust of W.T. Woodson formerly kept in the library, now in the storage room. Photo by Vy Nguyen

Wilbert Tucker Woodson, like Byrd, was an avid supporter of segregation. He got his start as an educational supervisor in 1925 after serving in WWI. However, as conveyed in the “What’s in a Name?” video on the FCPS website, it wasn’t until 1929 when Woodson was promoted to Fairfax County Superintendent that he truly began to make a difference.

On the plus side, Woodson pioneered the school consolidation effort leading up to WWII, during which time dilapidated, wooden school shacks were replaced with larger, brick-and-mortar academies. Woodson also worked to address the issues wrought by the Baby Boom and subsequent rapid student enrollment. 

However, Woodson and many of his affiliates openly bashed integration efforts in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against public schools’ segregation. Woodson went so far as to write a lengthy treatise about why desegregation was, in his eyes, “highly improper” and, ironically, how it “infringes upon human rights.” 

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why there have been calls to change the name of W.T. Woodson High School in recent years. That said, just as in the early days of integration efforts, these appeals have been met with massive resistance. 

A change.org poll back in 2015 on whether or not local schools named after segregationists such as Woodson and Robert E. Lee should be renamed gives the best proof of this. According to Spark.net, a whopping 2,000 people expressed support for maintaining “our hallowed school names,” in staunch opposition to over 890 pro-change petitioners.  

This desire to preserve even the most trauma-inducing names of institutions is in no way exclusive to Fairfax County or Virginia, and is reflective of a much larger issue: the lack of empathy and understanding in our society. Nowadays, we live in a sea of information, and knowledge from centuries past is simply a click away. However, this accessibility to information is a double-edged sword; although information can help improve our society for the better, not all information is based in fact. Online discussion forums have merit, yes, but these cannot promote meaningful discussion and action in the ways that public schools can. 

To that end, by promoting discussions about their dark pasts and by working to be more inclusive, schools like Woodson can improve for the better; name change or not. For instance, school-sponsored organizations such as Culture Club can facilitate conversations about heavy topics such as race. In this way, schools throughout the former segregationist south can atone for their bygone norms of oppression, and promote understanding and reconciliation in their communities. Schools certainly can’t improve society on their own, but by facilitating much-needed discussions and acting to be more inclusive, they can certainly contribute to the greater good of America.