In the early part of the 20th century there were only two public high schools for black students in Washington, one of which was Armstrong Manual Training High School. Built in 1902, the school was founded on the educational principles of Booker T. Washington, who advocated industrial, craft, and domestic skills training for African Americans. And Armstrong is where its most famous student, Duke Ellington, studied design and art.
It was not until the addition of a large wing constructed in 1924-1927 that the school added academic subjects. In 1928 it became known as Armstrong High School. From 1946 the building housed the Veterans High School until it became an adult education center in 1964. It was finally closed in 1996.
Samuel C. Armstrong (1839-1893) was a soldier and educator who devoted his life to the well being of Native and African-Americans. He commanded a black regiment in the Civil War and was the founder and first president of the Hampton Institute.
Dunbar High School, arch rival to Armstrong, was the first and most prestigious high school for African Americans in the nation. It had such a stellar faculty and academic reputation that many African American families from around the country sent their children to study at Dunbar. It not only had courses in Latin and Greek but early in the 20th century its students out performed students at Washington's white high schools on standardized tests. Dunbar was known as a college prep school, and a very high percentage of its graduates went on to college.
Many of the teachers at Dunbar had doctoral degrees. They were teaching at the high school level because they could not get well paying, professional jobs anywhere else. The federal government paid black teachers in Washington the same as white teachers, making Dunbar's faculty among the highest paid African Americans in the country.
The students who graduated from Dunbar went on to some of the most prestigious universities and became doctors, lawyers, writers, artists, statesmen, and many other successful professionals. Some of the more notable graduates include Dr. Charles Drew, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., Charles Houston, Senator Ed Brooke, and Eleanor Holmes Norton.
If one activity epitomized the discipline and high standards of the schools and the black community in Washington, it was the high school Cadet Corps Drill Teams. There was a fierce competition between Dunbar and Armstrong. They practiced during the entire year and then in the spring they had a competition called the drill.
The big day was at Griffith stadium. Every cadet company participated individually. The schools closed and all the children dressed in their school colors; red and black for Dunbar, blue and orange for Armstrong. Many notable Washingtonians participated in the Drill, including Sterling Brown and Dr. Charles Drew.
The spit and polish perfection of the Cadets reflected the pride and self-respect so prevalent in the larger black community of Washington. For many families, being in the school's Cadet Corp was a tradition. Charles Williams recalls, "You drilled all three years because the crowning point was to be an officer in your senior year, which meant you had a saber, you had command ... and you had ladies."
The oldest and most prestigious college for African Americans in the country, Howard University, was created in 1867 and named for General Oliver Otis Howard, the head of the Freedmen's Bureau and president of the university from 1869-1873. From its beginnings, Howard set itself apart. It offered a broad range of educational opportunities, as well as basic skills, and it was the first university to open its doors to both black and white students.
By the 1920s, Howard was developing a group of increasingly distinguished professors, among them Rhodes scholar Alain Locke and the pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston. It was a black intellectual mecca, and the power and influence of the school was felt throughout the country, but especially in Washington.
The area surrounding the school was physically, intellectually, socially, and economically embedded in the shadow of Howard University. American University historian Ed Smith recalls that for decades, most black Washingtonians, including himself, came into the world on Howard's campus when they were born at the old Freedmen's Hospital. Howard attracted some of the greatest men and women of the day, people who made their mark in history. "Harlem may have had the writers, artists, and musicians for a time," says Smith, "but Harlem had no Howard." The focus on education and achievement that typified the neighborhood was in a large part due to the influence of Howard University.
Some of the most well known professors and graduates include surgeon Dr. Charles Drew, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, historian Carter Woodson, poet Sterling Brown, attorney Ralph Bunche, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, writers Zora Neal Hurston and Toni Morrison, and activist Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael). In short, Howard has produced some of the greatest black leaders in law, medicine, science, as well as other disciplines.
Today, Howard has a faculty of about 1300 professors for over 6300 students. It continues to produce leaders, such as former mayors Andrew Young of Atlanta and David Dinkins of New York.
Another Duke Ellington legacy in Washington is the Ellington School for the Arts in Georgetown, where the classroom bell is a whistle that evokes Ellington's classic, "Take the 'A' Train," and where the predominantly black high school student body of more than 500 can major in music, dance, theater, drama, art, sculpture, television, radio, and photography. Here, students achieve competence, aspiration and good career prospects. Several have gone on to high achievement, most notably the opera singer Denyce Graves. In spirit, the school launched in Ellington's name in 1974 is similar to Armstrong Technical School, where Duke studied design as a teenager and took courses in design and music.