Our Namesake: Wilbert Tucker Woodson
A Biography by Georgia Kasperowicz and Danny Niemann
Proud Students of the School that Bears His Name
Wilbert Tucker ‘W. T.’ Woodson, a William and Mary graduate and WWI veteran, served as the third superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools.1 He was born on November 12, 1893 in Crozet, Virginia and died on July 12, 1983.2
W. T. Woodson revolutionized FCPS as superintendent from 1929 to 1961, allowing the county to flourish into the highly-renowned school system that is frequently regarded as one of the best nationwide.3 What began as a “modest” and “rural” school system with fewer than 5,000 students expanded into a county with approximately 122,500 students by 1982, becoming the largest county in the state thanks to Woodson’s guidance.4 Part of this unprecedented population growth was due to the boom after the Second World War, but FCPS would not be where it is today without Woodson’s expert management skills. Upon his retirement, he had increased the budget by over $19 million, added twenty-nine new public schools, and multiplied the number of buses by nearly a factor of eight.5 Not only did he work tirelessly to adapt to the constantly changing and growing county, but he “supported programs for music and the arts and for athletics,” ensuring that the focus of FCPS was always on the students themselves instead of money or politics.6 Always keeping the best interests of educators in mind, Woodson “encouraged the formation of teacher-salary committees,” enabling his hard-working employees to receive better pay.7
Woodson’s supervision over a school district that changed from rural to suburban required critical thinking and good judgment to adjust to the ever-increasing growth. His most “difficult problem” in his early career was “persuading parents” to consolidate small schools in order to provide more facilities for students.8 While many disliked transitioning from a local one-room schoolhouse to a larger consolidated school, which required extra costs for “modernized amenities” and school buses, Woodson’s progressive approach to this issue prepared the county for the growth ahead.9 Later, Woodson again addressed the problem of inadequate schooling facilities. With “about half” of students “on double shifts or in temporary quarters” in 1951, he further demonstrated forward thinking by borrowing funds for new buildings, convincing the approval of a $10.5 million bond and subsequently spending “about $50 million on new schools”.10 This required extensive amounts of persuasion to the public and the Board of Supervision, but the result was the construction of new buildings that are still in use today.
Some criticize Woodson for the delayed progress of the racial integration of FCPS after the Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education ruled the segregation of public schools unconstitutional in 1954. However, Woodson faced intense political pressures from the Virginia State Government. Following Brown v Board of Education, the Virginian “General Assembly adopted laws prohibiting any integrated school from receiving state funds”.11 Only in Woodson’s last three years as the superintendent did the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals order Virginian schools to integrate.12 Even with this court-ordered mandate, Virginia’s governor at the time, Lindsay Almond, forced the school systems to close.13
It was not until 1958, three years before Woodson would retire, that the Virginia Supreme Court “declared most of the General Assembly’s anti-desegregation legislation unconstitutional”.14 During these last three years, the Fairfax County School Board “eventually approved a plan, under court order, that called for the schools to be desegregated one grade at a time,” the result of which would not achieve full integration of all grades until 1971.15 While some may claim that Woodson’s cautious approach to integration seems disappointingly sluggish compared to modern standards of change, we honor him for his significant impact on the growth of FCPS and also acknowledge the extent to which he conformed to the societal prejudices of his time. As Americans, we similarly recognize prominent figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for both their achievements and shortcomings.
Woodson’s accomplishments during his tenure inspired such awe from others that the school board decided to name a newly constructed high school after him. This action “broke a rule which prohibited the naming of a school for a living person,” but the board considered his achievements monumental enough to make an exception.16 Upon being informed on this distinction, Woodson humbly replied that he “‘appreciate[d] the honor very much’” but that “‘the old policy was good’”.17 Woodson made a habit of attending Woodson High School athletic and artistic events, where he was a frequent and honored guest.18
Woodson was the Franklin D. Roosevelt of Northern Virginia. Not only did he manage to exponentially increase funding for education during the hardships brought by the Great Depression, WT Woodson led one of the most important school districts through the challenges of integration and the early era of the Civil Rights movement. During a testimonial dinner in his honor in 1959, he said: “‘All we do is the best we can. That’s what makes the world go round’”.19 Given the culture during his tenure as superintendent, Woodson did just that- the best he could- to make Fairfax County Public Schools a top-tier education system.
Fairfax Democrats. "50 Years Ago on February 2, 2009." Fairfax Democrats, Fairfax County Democratic Committee, 25 Jan. 2009, fairfaxdemocrats.org/blog/2009/01/25/50-years-ago-on-february-2-2009/. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
"Growth and Consolidation." Fairfax County Public Schools, 2018, www.fcps.edu/about-fcps/history/growth-and-consolidation. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
"School History." WT Woodson High School, Fairfax County Public Schools, 2018, woodsonhs.fcps.edu/about/school-history. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Smith, J.Y. "W.T. Woodson, Fairfax Schools Ex-Chief, Dies." Washington Post, 14 July 1983. Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1983/07/14/ wt-woodson-fairfax-schools-ex-chief-dies/586b7f6c-997a-4022-a2ec-44a79ff5fa35/?utm_term=.3f746405ac23. Accessed 19 Feb. 2018.
Carlton, Patrick. “Interview with B. Oswald Robinson.” Oral History of the Principalship, 1989, scholar.lib.vt.edu/faculty_archives/principalship/r/155robinson.html.
“Fairfax County Public Schools.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairfax_County_Public_Schools#cite_note-ReferenceA-18.
“Fairfax's Long Road to Integration.” The Connection, Ellington, 3 Mar. 2004, www.connectionnewspapers.com/news/2004/mar/03/fairfaxs-long-road-to-integration/.