WASHINGTON — In 1870, on the heels of civil war and the end of slavery, the nation’s first African-American public high school opened its doors just blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Today, with a brand new $122 million school building that was paid for as part of the District of Columbia’s sprawling effort to modernize its troubled school system, Dunbar High School (re-named for the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1916) is honoring its past while hoping to recapture what once made it great.
Until 1954, in the face of legalized segregation and well-documented discrimination from those who controlled the school’s purse strings, Dunbar built a reputation for academic rigor. By 1950, it was sending 80 percent of its students to college and for years enticed African-American parents from around the U.S. to move to Washington to enroll their children.
Dunbar churned out an impressive list of famous alumni, including Sen. Edward Brooke, the first African American senator; jazz great Billy Taylor; artist Elizabeth Catlett and the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D, Eva Beatrice Dykes.
But as schools integrated and affluent parents fled to suburbs, Dunbar became a traditional neighborhood school and lost its autonomy as a magnet institution that was able to pick and chose its students. Last year, roughly 60 percent of Dunbar students graduated on time.
Journalist and author Alison Stewart tells the remarkable story of Dunbar in her new book “First Class.” Her interview with Jeffrey Brown and a version of this report will air on Friday’s NewsHour.
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.