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Ask the Washingtonologist: Which Washingtonians Would Be Good Namesakes for Schools?

Our local know-it-all solves your capital city conundrums

Illustration by Jenny Rosenberg.

Dear Washingtonologist:

With so many schools and roads in the region being renamed, I think we should try to name them after great Washingtonians. Who do you think is worthy of the honor?



Dear Nameless:

You raise an interesting philosophical question: Should schools commemorate great historical figures who might inspire kids everywhere, or should we pick more obscure folks who might have shaped just our community? Your humble columnist has long maintained that, as a global city, Washington need not be constrained by obsessive localism. Sometimes it’s okay simply to pick a world-famous astronaut or poet.

That said, as locals in a national capital, we Washingtonians have a unique sensitivity to being erased from the national narrative. The urge to rectify that is perfectly valid. But it does raise yet another thorny question: Just who counts? If the standard is whether the person to be honored was born here, the Washingtonologist fits that bill, but regional heroes such as Marion Barry (Mississippi), Chuck Brown (North Carolina), and Pierre L’Enfant (France) do not. Or is it simply a matter of having lived here a long time? In that case, fellow DMVers include such unlikely characters as Dick Cheney. After all, he raised his kids in Northern Virginia during his extended stints on the federal payroll, retired here after leaving the vice-presidency—and is even married to someone who wrote for the very Washington magazine you’re currently holding in your hands.

Most people, of course, have their own rough standard for what constitutes a Washingtonian. Like pornography, they know it when they see it. The typical calculus includes lengthy tenure and involvement with the local aspects of life—a formula that (correctly) eliminates most federal-officeholder types but (more problematically) risks defining “Washingtonian” in an awfully narrow way.

The Washingtonologist is inclined to draw the category as broadly as possible. Leaving out people who are still alive, our roster of new and improved honorees might include Carter G. Woodson (the father of Black history, whose Shaw home is a historic site), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who spent 40 years here and put in a lot more time patronizing Washington arts institutions than most DC-bred folks), Jim Vance (a local newsman back when that was a big deal, the Philly native became the face of DC news), Katharine Graham (she helped make the Post a national force but remained a District lifer), and Elgin Baylor (a DC schoolboy-basketball titan who went on to NBA stardom).

Of course, there’s another possibility, too: If your standard is abiding public devotion to this greatest city in the world, the Washingtonologist would make an ideal candidate. Feel free to nominate him.

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This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Washingtonian.