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School board proposes changing namesake of Woodson High School

Sign for W.T. Woodson High School (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Woodson High School may soon drop “W.T.” from the beginning of its name.

The Fairfax County School Board launched a formal process last week to consider renaming the school just outside Fairfax City, adding it to a growing list of local institutions and landmarks whose monikers have been reevaluated in recent years.

Crediting students with advocating for change, the school board has suggested adopting scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson — the “Father of Black History” — as the school’s namesake in place of Wilbur Tucker Woodson, whose long tenure as Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent included opposition to desegregation.

“I truly believe it will be and can be a remarkable moment for our county, for a solemn reckoning of our county and our Commonwealth’s segregationist past and a reconciliation and a healing,” said Braddock District School Board Representative Megan McLaughlin, who introduced the proposal at a work session on Sept. 12.

The proposal was co-sponsored by six other school board members, including all three at-large members and three other members — Karl Frisch (Providence), Ricardy Anderson (Mason) and Laura Jane Cohen (Springfield) — who also represent portions of the Woodson area.

Now serving over 2,400 students, Woodson was the largest school in Fairfax County and Virginia when it originally opened its doors in fall 1962 — just over a year after W.T. Woodson retired in June 1961, according to FCPS.

Appointed superintendent from 1929 to 1961, Woodson oversaw FCPS as it evolved from a smattering of small schoolhouses into one of the state’s largest districts, growth fueled by the county’s population boom following World War II.

When he died in 1983, a Washington Post obituary described Woodson as “a gradualist” who believed Black and white students should be integrated over time, starting with first graders, rather than all at once.

However, in a 1959 letter to a school board member, Woodson called desegregating schools “most unfair” because it would force “social adjustments to which so many parents strongly object.” In addition to fearing “social mixing,” he warned integration would reduce political and financial support for public schools.

According to McLaughlin, concerns about Woodson High School’s name have cropped up in the past, but it wasn’t given the same priority as schools with clear nods to the Confederacy, like J.E.B. Stuart (now Justice High School), Robert E. Lee (renamed after Rep. John Lewis) and Mosby Woods (now Mosaic Elementary School).

That changed when an FCPS staff member found the 1959 letter while researching the system’s history with segregation, confirming that Woodson’s resistance to integration reflected his personal beliefs, not just adherence to state policy.

“The school board may consider a change in the name of an existing school or facility to ensure an inclusive, respectful learning environment,” McLaughlin told FFXnow. “It’s not inclusive when you have the name of an individual on a building that we now have a document that shows that he believed in the merits of segregation.”

Noting that several of her family members have attended Woodson, including her husband, brothers and children, McLaughlin stressed her desire to approach the renaming process with “humility,” even as she hopes the community will support Carter G. Woodson as an alternate name.

Born in New Canton, Virginia, Carter G. Woodson taught himself reading, writing and math while working as a coal miner in West Virginia. The only person born to enslaved parents to earn a PhD in history from any institution in the U.S., he advocated for education on Black life and history and established Negro History Week, a concept that would later grow into Black History Month.

McLaughlin says the proposed renaming would honor an inspiring figure at a time when many states are restricting teachings about Black history, while also maintaining some continuity with the school’s 61-year history.

“It’s just a beloved community,” she said. “So, that’s why I’m hoping we have a unique opportunity here to do something that is pretty profound, but also in a way that makes it a beautiful thing and not a divisive thing, if that makes sense.”

The proposal’s introduction as “new business” at the school board’s meeting on Thursday (Sept. 14) triggered the start of a one-month public comment period on whether the school should be renamed, in accordance with FCPS policies adopted in 2020.

The comment period will include a community meeting and a formal public hearing before the school board votes, which will likely come on Oct. 12. If the board moves forward with a renaming, then there will be a second round of public engagement to determine the new name, putting the process on track to conclude before December.

“We’re obviously as a board now asking for strong consideration for Carter G., but it is open for people to bring other names for consideration too,” McLaughlin said.

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