America's First African-American Public High School Is Remaking Itself
Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High School, named for African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, is a vital stitch in the city’s historic fabric.
As the country’s first public high school for African-American students, it has educated generations of leaders, including Edward Brooke, the first African-American to be elected to the United States Senate, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first African-American Air Force general.
In its original incarnation, Dunbar was the M Street High School, a post-Reconstruction educational mission set in the basement of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. In 1916, the school moved into a freestanding building and was christened Dunbar High School. Serving as a magnet school for the brightest and most academically focused African-American students in the District, Dunbar was known for its academic rigor during segregation, challenging students to push themselves and inspiring them to dream without limits.
Since then, the school has been demolished and rebuilt twice; once in 1977 and most recently in 2013. Throughout that time, its growing and diminishing fortunes have mirrored the city’s. And even though the original building is long gone, the new one revives the spirit and legacy of the school, if not the building, in a way the 1977 structure never did.
This January 17th will mark the 100th anniversary of Dunbar High School's dedication. We spoke with journalist Alison Stewart, the author of First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School, about the school’s historic significance and place in Washington, D.C., as it enters its second century.
Your parents are Dunbar alumni, correct?
Yes, my mother and father both graduated from Dunbar, as did my paternal grandfather.
How have some of the traditions of Dunbar survived throughout its history, despite the fact that it has occupied three different buildings?
[In the book] I call the three different buildings Dunbar I, II, and III. One of the things that I found to be really interesting is that the original architect of the first building, Ashford Snowden, was really prescient about light and positioning, and when they were looking to build the new Dunbar, they actually ended up putting it almost exactly on the original footprint, because it was a much better positioning in terms of it not disrupting the neighborhood.
The community could sort of envelop the building, rather than it being a fortress keeping everybody out. Which, you know, all that architecture from the late ‘60s and ‘70s is like that, because it really reflected that time post-riots and post-civil actions. The buildings were supposed to be fortresses to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out.
When they were building the new [building,] a lot of the architects said that to me—“Oh, you know, the original guys really knew what they were doing.” And the new one really called back physically to that first building, the one that was so beautiful and grand and majestic in terms of the towers, and sort of that entryway idea.
Every graduate I talked to who went to Dunbar when it was in the golden era went up the steps, and you went into the armory, and that was where everyone gathered and saw each other. If you look at the new building it’s the same way—these steps you go up to, and then there’s a big open space with a big Paul Laurence Dunbar poem right in the middle.
Are there any other ideologies or traditions that you see carrying through?
I think what they’ve tried to reinvigorate with the new version of Dunbar, Dunbar III—and it did get a little lost in Dunbar II, to be frank—was this idea that academic excellence is part of African-American history, and can and should be considered to be part of African-American history.
I think there’s a couple generations of black kids who were taught that to speak correct grammar and to go to college is a white thing, not your history. I just always thought that was really insidious and untrue. But if there aren’t buildings and monuments and people to testify to the truth of it, then it’s going to get lost and become mythology.
That’s actually one of the reasons that I wrote the book. I was really afraid that that history of Dunbar and M Street as this place of extraordinary academic excellence in the face of society telling these young men and women that they weren’t smart enough, that they weren’t good enough, they couldn’t do it, they had to go to an entirely different building, “You can’t possibly mingle with my white children.” I thought it was really important to solidify and document, “No, here were amazing minds who were teaching young amazing minds in the face of segregation.”
It sounds like there was a lot of controversy in the 1970s when Dunbar was torn down. In terms of the most recent rebuild of the school, was there any controversy surrounding the demolition of Dunbar II?
I think for people for whom that was their high school experience, it was hard to watch the building be torn down, but I think the general consensus had come to be that the building wasn’t conducive to academic rigor. It had deteriorated to the point where there was mold in the building and it wasn’t entirely being used.
The first time I ever visited it, none of the alarms were working. I just walked right into the building and nobody stopped me. There were weight benches in the gym that were ripped up—there was stuffing coming out of them. It was a sick building, so I don’t think anybody felt like in its state, in the 2000s, that it was a place where good things were happening.
A couple people I did talk to who were there in the '70s and '80s who were in the Blue Ribbon program and the STEM program there, they did have very fond memories of their high school, but as adults, they understood that you had to start over. To preserve the legacy, you had to kind of start over, in a way.
From what I’ve read, it was in really bad shape.
It was in terrible shape. It also tells you about educational fads, because when it was built, the idea was, “Open classrooms! Ideas will flow! Kids can share and move around!” It was so loud because there were no sound barriers, and kids would wander from one room to another, there were no doors. It was such a 1970s freewheeling educational philosophy that had no business in 21st-century urban life.
How did the Brown v. Board of Education decision impact Dunbar in the 1950s?
You know, it’s so interesting. If you go to the Sumner [Education] Museum in D.C.—that summer of 1954, the Board of Education notes are incredible—volumes and volumes. The president had said, “D.C. is going to lead the way.” And so they had, like, three months to figure it all out, because Brown v. Board of Education came down in May of ’54. They were really just trying to figure out where to put kids, and then there were a lot of white parents who were really mad because all of a sudden their schools were going to be half black.
The thing that changed about Dunbar was, it never stopped being predominantly African-American, but it did stop being a magnet school. By the '50s, there were five high schools that black kids could go to. [Dunbar] was the one for the kids who were going to college. It stopped being a magnet school and started becoming a neighborhood school.
There had been a lot of folks who moved to D.C., who came up from the South during the Great Migration, who had been underserved their entire academic lives. So they got to D.C., and they didn’t have the same kind of educational foundation that the kids who had been going to Dunbar did. The other thing that’s important to know is that the black schools were starting to become really overcrowded, and the white schools were sitting half-empty. So the black kids were having to go to school in shifts, so you weren’t even getting a full education.
For a good long time, almost until the old building went down, the teachers and the long-time Dunbar people really tried to fight to keep the academic standards up, but they had to fight in a real, serious way because now that Brown v. Board of Education happened, it was like, “Well, you know, how will you complain about it?”
I also think a little bit of a community was lost, which is unfortunate, because the brightest and most academically minded students got spread all through the system. One of the people who I interviewed about it who fought for integration said, “We just thought, with integration, we’ll get as good as the other people, as everybody else,” and that’s not what happened. So sometimes you’re like, “Wow, wasn’t the segregation part good?” You should never say “segregation” and “good” in the same sentence, but desegregation failed. There wasn’t enough true investment into making integration work.
Besides the new school being built in the original footprint, what are some other ways that the history of the school has been integrated into the new building?
I love that they have physically built into the school all of those plaques featuring different graduates—the first black general who went to Dunbar, the first black federal judge, the first black elected senator. In the library they have at least eight teachers and graduates who are on U.S. postage stamps. They have enormous paintings of them on the stamps, so when you’re studying, it’s like the elders are looking down on you.
Those are physically in the building and the kids see them every day, and it makes them think, “Oh, this place really was remarkable. Wow, this place really created people who changed American history. Oh wow, I can be part of something that’s really big and special.”
Even if that motivates one kid, or one kid to stay in school, or go to class that day—I think the idea that the history now is physically in the school and won’t be lost is really valuable.