First Published: February 22, 2016 as First Class: Dunbar High School
“The story of Dunbar shows what can happen in spite of huge legal, societal, and professional hurdles. It shows what is possible when a group of people focus and band together to make something better. Dunbar shows what happens when a stable middle class exists. And Dunbar shows us that politics pollutes education. And through all this, Dunbar helped create the greatest generations of African Americans.”
These are the powerful words that reach out to you in the introduction of Alison Stewart’s book, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School.
Alison Stewart’s book is a compelling read for anyone interested in getting a feel for the history of black education in Washington DC. It’s even a compelling read for someone who wants to get a feel for the early days of the District of Columbia’s beginnings as a southern federal city with its mix of slaves and free Negroes.
Tyrone Freeman (Class of ’72) states that “Every Dunbar alum should read the book… You would get a full picture why DCPS is like it is today.” He goes on to reemphasize Stewart’s comments about the impact of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Keep a-plugin'”. “You saw this quote every time you went in the auditorium. When I started at Dunbar in the fall of 1969, you were made aware of the history of the school because there were pictures of the famous alumni, Benjamin Davis, Charles Drew, Edward Brookes, etc. When my brother and I went to Dunbar, the school was no longer the prestigious school it had been. It was under decay and neglect. The school was becoming a part of the drug scene of the late 60’s and 70’s.”
Originally named The Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in 1870, it wasn’t until October 2, 1916 that Paul Laurence Dunbar High School became the cornerstone of First and M Street Northwest. There is so much to read in between on how a determined mix of free Negroes and former slaves became committed to a single cause – education. The proud history also makes you regret that in June of 1977, the fight to keep the original Dunbar as a historic landmark failed. Mr. Freeman put it this way, “The old Dunbar was designed by Snowden Ashford who has many of his buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Eastern Market, Duke Ellington High School, and Eastern High are a few of his buildings. The old Dunbar built in the late 20’s or 30’s should have gotten that status of being on the National Register. Politics and the haters prevailed. Then they built a new Dunbar in the 80’s which was state-of-the art then. Later people complained it looked like a prison. Even though they built a new school, it will never replace the school on 1st and M.”