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In Nation's First Black Public High School, A Blueprint For Reform

NPR | Aug. 22, 2013 11:26 a.m.

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NPR Staff

NPR’s All Things Considered host Audie Cornish chatted with journalist Alison Stewart about her new book, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. Stewart, whose parents attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, began working on this book in 2007, when Washington, D.C. — where the high school is located — was embroiled in discussion about education reform.

The nation’s first black public high school, Dunbar High, opened its doors in 1870. But more than 140 years later, Dunbar High — like many urban schools — has fallen on hard times. Graduation rates hover below 60 percent. And students have been walking the halls of a crumbling, brutalist-style building often described as a prison.

But it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, the yearbook read like a Who’s Who of black America.

“It’s really amazing, because we’re talking about people who literally changed America, who changed the United States. The architect of school desegregation, Charles Hamilton Houston, was a Dunbar graduate. Elizabeth Catlett, the artist. Billy Taylor, the jazz musician. The first black general in the Army. The first black graduate of the Naval Academy. The first black presidential cabinet member. The lists go on and on,” says Stewart, who believes that Dunbar can serve as a model for urban schools today.

More Interview Highlights

Cornish: You take us back into the 1860s… and in those days in Washington, D.C., what makes this place a fertile ground, actually, for the education of blacks?

“Because it wasn’t illegal to teach blacks. It’s so interesting to think, not interesting, stunning to think that in the south, before the Civil War, you could have a finger cut off if you were caught trying to read while a slave. But Washington, D.C., while there weren’t any schools for blacks, they weren’t going to stand in the way of blacks getting an education.

“So as early as 1807, these small schools started popping up, in churches, and homes. A lot of Quakers came down from the north to Washington. They understood that this was an opportunity to lay the groundwork for what turned into a pretty spectacular education system for black Americans.”

And it helps that there’s this large population of free blacks already living there.

“Exactly. And they were fighting so hard to continue the progress of education. For a long time, there were grammar schools only, and elementary schools, and a few free blacks got together and they saw their moment. Because after the Civil War, the U.S. government said, ‘Okay, we’ve got all these free black children, we have to give them schools.’ So a group of free blacks got together and said, ‘Okay, we see this moment in time. We’re just going to do it.’ And it started in 1870, with four students, in the basement of a church.”

Now talk a little bit about what the goals are for this school in particular. From the very beginning, academic standards are just so incredibly high.

“What ended happening, is that the first African-Americans to go to competitive colleges: Oberlin, Amherst, Brown, Harvard. They would graduate from school and have nowhere to go. Many of them came back to teach at this high school. My mom and dad went to this high school in the 1940s, they had a very different experience. My mother was born and raised in Washington, D.C. My dad was born and raised in Harlem, and my grandmother picked him up at 14 and took him to D.C. just to go to Dunbar, which many people did. People moved to D.C. just to send their kids to this high school.

“And my mom used to talk about having teachers who were Ph.D.s. The first black woman to get her Ph.D. in math was the head of the math department. She was also the first black graduate of Smith College. You had the first three black women to get Ph.Ds; two of them went to Dunbar, and two of them taught at Dunbar.

“So what ended up happening was that these next two and three generations were these hyper-educated African-Americans and one of the things they always taught the kids was self-pride and race-pride.”

So the school was basically in a way benefiting…. From the glass ceiling of education. That these high-achieving African Americans, they don’t have anywhere to go once they’ve graduated from these schools and broken these barriers. And they come into the community.

“It’s a perversity of it, right? And it’s funny, because I stayed up at night, worried that someone would think I was actually writing a book that talked about ‘segregation is a good thing’ because it of course isn’t, it of course was horrible. And that was the other thing that I also found so fascinating about this story. You had these people who were so educated, speaking two and three languages, going to a school and getting an education on par with anyone in Washington, D.C., but had these other restrictions on their lives.”

When you talk about being fearful that people would think that in a way you’re finding some type of silver lining to segregation, it’s fascinating because in some ways, the book outlines what happens to Dunbar with integration, and some of the difficulties it suffers in the years immediately after.

“The other interesting thing about the segregation issue is Dunbar was always black and has always been black. It never integrated. And D.C. for that matter, legally desegregated but never really integrated. And that’s the interesting social part of the story.”

There’s a lot of discussion about sort of intra-racial debate within the book. And Dunbar at one point has this reputation for light-skinned elites, that there are class distinctions in the community in and around Dunbar and they’re reflected in its troubles later on.

“I think the interesting thing was, in Washington, the grammar schools suffered quite a bit in the 30s, 40s and 50s. They were overcrowded and the purse strings were held by many racist southern congressmen. And sometimes, often, kids would only go to school for two to three hours. So post 1954, if you read the Board of Education minutes from that summer, they’re just scrambling. And they start cutting up the city and start making this group here goes to this school and this group here goes to this school. And Dunbar went from being what we all call a magnet school, where kids come from all over the city to go to this city, specifically because they were college-bound, that it became a neighborhood high school. And that meant all elements of the neighborhood: Those kids who had been able to go to elementary school all-day long, and the kids who had only able to go for two hours a day.”

When you’re going back to the 60s and early 70s, what are some of the aspects of Dunbar’s evolution that you see reflected in urban education in general?

“The thing that happened in the 70s with Dunbar that I think we can really learn from is that they tore down the old school. There was this huge movement to tear down the original Dunbar. and the older alumni, many of whom were in their 70s and 80s, were trying to get across, ‘Wait. This is a historical institution. This is an important part of American history and black history. You have to, in some way, save the school.’ And the more modern folks said, ‘Hey, you know what, that’s a symbol of segregation, that’s a symbol of when we were subservient. And we need a new, modern high school.’

“I think one of the things that we can learn, is not to be so hasty to get rid of the old. Because there were many amazing things about the history of Dunbar that could be applied to education reform today. One of the reasons why I really started working on this book hard core in 2007 was when all this discussion about education reform was happening in D.C., I thought to myself, ‘You know that there’s a blue print, blocks away from y’all, where you could learn so much from this high school that was never supposed to be as successful as it was.’ It was, ‘Yeah, this is the high school for the black kids. That’s the high school for the Negroes….’ It turned out to be this academic powerhouse.”

There’s going to be yet another new facility for Dunbar that’s opening in just a few weeks. What’s the feeling in the school there today, and what do you think its chances are for turning things around?

“The new Dunbar is costing $122 million and it is embracing the history. There are going to be 200 plus plaques on the floor dedicated to some of the great graduates on the school, and they plan to leave some of them empty with the idea that, ‘Hey, you could you, you could be the next great leader, lawyer, doctor, scientist, teacher. That plaque could belong to you, the one right next Senator Ed Brooke, or Eleanor Holmes Norton, or Charles Hamilton Houston.’”

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