Washington-Lee, Arlington’s First High School
The following brief history updates one written for the 75th Anniversary Celebration in 1999.
“This school in which you will receive your education has a nationwide reputation for excellence resulting from the past achievements of its students. You have a right to be proud of this reputation, but with this pride goes a responsibility for measuring up to the high standards of citizenship and scholarship.” – Mr. O. U. Johansen, principal (1961-1976)
As Washington-Lee (W-L) approaches its centenary, the school continues to add to the many historical milestones that have created one of the most enduring and inspiring legacies of any public high school. The school was noted for many historical “firsts” in its early years, and it welcomed students from around the country and the world shortly after opening its doors. In the subsequent decades, the school embraced its legacy as a progressive institution. Of course, W-L’s history would not be complete without acknowledging the challenges it faced. The brief history below and the adjacent historical timeline illustrate the last 92 years of innovation and continuity at W-L. W-L’s guiding principles through the decades can be summed up by this phrase from one of W-L’s most beloved teachers: “FOVEAT DIVERSITATES” Cherish the differences — Mabel Allen, W-L faculty from 1924-1968
Before Washington-Lee, area high school students attended public schools in nearby Washington, DC or in what is now the City of Alexandria.* In 1922, Arlington County citizens voted for school bonds to cover the cost of a new centrally located high school; it was the first time bonds were used to finance school construction in Virginia. The investment became a reality when Washington-Lee High School opened for students on October 6, 1925. Named for two distinguished Virginians with local roots, George Washington and Robert E. Lee, the school took its name from Washington & Lee University.** The original three-story Beaux Arts style school building faced an open athletic field, today’s Arlington War Memorial Stadium.
W-L grew in size as did Arlington County, requiring an expansion in just five years. The school soon became known for its academic and athletic accomplishments. The W-L Cadet Corps, the first JROTC in Northern Virginia, included a significant number of students. W-L’s crew team was formed in 1949 as the region’s second oldest scholastic rowing program. A rivalry with Alexandria’s George Washington High School was reflected in the annual football game for the Old Oaken Bucket, a Thanksgiving Day tradition for over three decades. Symbolizing the student body’s spirit of unity during the turbulent 60s, the 1966 boys varsity basketball team won the state championship as the first integrated team. W-L became a model for other schools throughout Northern Virginia and the state.
Academically, W-L was one of the first area high schools to offer advanced, college-level classes. When national high school rankings grew in popularity, W-L was rated as the “No. 2” high school in the country in the 1960s and also was named the state’s “grooviest high school.” As foreign immigration to the region increased, W-L and nearby Stratford Junior High School offered the first ESOL classes in 1967; over 10% of the student population was foreign born. In 1985, W-L was honored for its academic achievements by the U.S. Department of Education. In recognition of the school’s diverse, high-achieving student population, President Barack Obama addressed the student body in 2012.
Many graduates have achieved success in the arts, science, business, the military, government, athletics, and more. In entertainment alone W-L boasts Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winners; other alumni have won Nobel, Pulitzer, Olympic, World Series, and Super Bowl awards.
Notes on the School’s Namesakes:
From the 1950 Blue and Gray on the school’s 25th Anniversary:
“As a new school, Washington-Lee was suggested and approved by a board as a necessary project. Its construction was begun in 1924. Its classes were held at Cherrydale and Ballston until 1925 when the school was near enough completion for classes to be held here. Originally known as [the central high school], its present name came from that of Washington & Lee University.”***
According to the History of Washington-Lee in the Generals’ Aide Student Handbooks, published in the 40s-70s:
“The name was taken from Washington and Lee University; however, the and was omitted and a hyphen substituted to distinguish one from the other.”
The new school opened as Washington-Lee High School on October 6, 1925.
The W&L University website has an excellent section on the background of the school’s namesakes and the history of the university. According to the university, “Founded in 1749, Washington and Lee University is named for two men who played pivotal roles in the University’s history: George Washington, whose generous endowment of $20,000 in 1796 helped the fledgling school (then known as Liberty Hall Academy) survive, and Robert E. Lee, who provided innovative educational leadership during his transformational tenure as president of Washington College from 1865 to 1870.”
While W-L’s name comes from W&L University, there are local Northern Virginia and Arlington County historical landmarks associated with the high school’s namesakes. They include Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, operated and maintained by the National Park Service. Beginning in the 1890s, the Mount Vernon mansion and grounds were restored, after many years of decay, by the Association, the country’s first historic preservation organization. In 1925, the year W-L opened, Arlington House was restored as the nation’s memorial to Lee. According to the National Park Service, “Today Arlington House is preserved as a memorial to Robert E. Lee in honor of his dedication to peace and reconciliation after the Civil War.”
- George Mason High School opened in 1919 in the Del Ray community. It was the first and only high school in Alexandria County; previously, some county residents paid tuition to City of Alexandria high schools. The county was renamed Arlington the following year. In 1925 George Mason moved into a new building; and with W-L now open, an inter-county rivalry developed. In 1930 the City of Alexandria annexed the Town of Potomac, which contained the community of Del Ray, from Arlington County. George Mason High School, now in the City of Alexandria, closed soon afterwards. The old George Mason High School building is currently the Mount Vernon Community School, operated by Alexandria City Public Schools.
- Early historical accounts, published by the school, recall how the school took its name from Washington and Lee University (W&L), and how the hyphen replaced the ampersand to eliminate any confusion between the two institutions. A number of W&L traditions were adopted by W-L, such as the honor code, the generals mascot, the nickname (pronounced “WnL”), and the school seal. The original seal was designed by Francis David Millet, a Union veteran and renowned artist “who was last seen helping women and children into lifeboats” during the sinking of the RMS Titanic, as quoted from his biography on Wikipedia. The name Washington-Lee High School was formally adopted by the Arlington School Board on July 31, 1925. (In prior school board minutes the yet-to-be-named school was referred to as “the central high school” while classes were held in the Ballston and Cherrydale Schools. More information about the school’s early years can be found in History of W-L, 1924-1939 and in other school publications.)
- Use of brackets above clarifies the original text, which said “Central High School.” According to Sally Loving’s history of W-L, the school was not named “Central.” For the 1924-1925 school year the yet-to-be-named school was called “the central high school” in school board minutes (See History of W-L, 1924-1939 pp 9-10). Classes were held in the Ballston and Cherrydale schools. For the purpose of interscholastic sports George Mason High School in Del Ray referred to the still unnamed school as Ballston High School (1925 George Mason High School yearbook).