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D.C.’s Dunbar High School will begin classes this year in a brand new building. It’s a state-of-the-art facility nestled right in the middle of one of the city’s fastest-changing neighborhoods. More than a century of history will follow faculty and students into that new facility: Dunbar was the nation’s first public high school for black students. Its alumni include the U.S. Army’s first black general and the first black federal judge in American history. We talk with author and journalist Alison Stewart, whose new book explores Dunbar’s past and ponders the future of D.C.’s public school system.
- Alison Stewart Journalist, Author, "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School" (Lawrence Hill Books, 2013)
Legacy Of Notable Alumni
Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., was the nation’s first public high school for black students. As students and faculty prepare to move into a new state-of-the-art building, more than a century of history follows them. Among the school’s many notable graduates are Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first African American general in the Armed Forces, Lawrence Chambers, the first African American graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy to reach the rank of admiral, and Edward Brooke, the first African American to be elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate.
Dunbar High alums Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (Class of ’55) and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (Class of ’59) share their memories of attending the famed school. They reflect on the education they received at Dunbar and how the experience shaped their future careers.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School” by Alison Stewart. Copyright 2013 by Alison Stewart. Reprinted here by permission of Chicago Review Press. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Washington D.C.'s Dunbar High School will get a fresh start next week when classes officially open for the first time in a brand new state-of-the-art facility at First and N Streets Northwest. But the future of Dunbar may rest, in part, on its ability to reconnect with its past. Dunbar was the nation's first public high school for black students when it opened more than 140 years ago and it was once a major point of pride for the city.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIts alumni include the nation's first black federal judge, the first black general in the U.S. Army and the District's current mayor and delegate in the United States House of Representatives. But much of that history was pushed aside in recent decades as D.C. schools like Dunbar became better known as national symbols of educational dysfunction than they were for helping to cultivate a thriving black middle class and carving a path for generations of successful African-American students.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a history that the journalist and writer Alison Stewart took it upon herself to retrace from the Civil War era all the way through the knock-down, drag-out fights over education reform of the 21st century and through the personal stories of her father and her mother who were both proud to call themselves Dunbar alumni.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAlison Stewart joins us in studio. She is the author of "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School." She's a journalist who during the past several decades has worked for NPR, PBS, MSNBC and MTV. She joins us in studio, Alison Stewart, welcome.
MS. ALISON STEWARTThank you so much for having me. I feel like I'm at home in the studio because I listened to so many of your programs researching this book.
NNAMDIOh, so glad you do that, thank you very much. As for those of you who are still listening to the broadcast, if you'd like to join it, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Did you or anyone in your family attend Dunbar High School? What did that experience mean to you? 800-433-8850. Alison, you grew up in a home with two parents who went to Dunbar.
NNAMDIDespite the reputation the D.C. public schools carried when you were young, you were told over and over that Dunbar meant something and that you had to see this school. Before you had even seen the place, what was the image of Dunbar that existed in your mind?
STEWARTIn my mind, hearing my parents talk about it -- and my father's father went to Dunbar as well and graduated in 1915 when it was still the M Street School. I had in the vision of excellent teachers, of incredible role models for the students.
STEWARTMy parents talked about how rigorous the curriculum was. My mother became a public school teacher so education, education, education was the mantra in our home. And she and my father really were trying to explain to me how it was the foundation for everything that they were able to build and everything that their friends and families were able to build.
STEWARTAnd I, you know, of course I did the math and I thought, okay, so there's this academically rigorous high school where students can speak two and three languages and their teachers have PhDs and master's degrees, but obviously this is during segregation. And I thought what an incredible dichotomy to think, okay, so I'm this 16-year-old kid who understands Latin, but I can't go into a restaurant or I can't buy a piece of clothing in a store? What that must have been like?
STEWARTSo I, you know, as a journalist, I'm always in and out of D.C. and I said to a colleague, somebody from NPR, hey, I'm going to go over and see Dunbar. My parents went there. And they said, hah, great basketball team, great football team, too. And I responded, yes, and athletics are very important. I understand that.
STEWARTBut what about Senator Ed Brooke, what about Charles Drew, what about all of these luminaries? And they really didn't know the history of it. And when I walked over to the school and I saw it and I went in, I realized a lot of the students didn't even know the history of the school, which really saddened me.
NNAMDIWhen you visited that school in 2003, it was located in a different building on New Jersey Avenue. How did the modern version of it live up to the Dunbar that meant something that you had heard about so much? What were your impressions when you first walked in?
STEWARTAt first, I thought it was really a sad story. It looked like a movie set to me. If you had to design a movie set that says downtrodden, inner-city, urban high school, I thought, well, they had a great set designer. At first, I was surprised that I wasn't really stopped. I walked around the halls pretty freely as did many of the students changing...
NNAMDIDuring class time?
STEWARTYeah, and you know, there were educators who were trying to get things done. Anybody who's been in that building knows it's an open-floor concept so it's cacophonous. It's just very loud so you would see teachers who had kind of made makeshift barriers, sound barriers.
STEWARTThere were kids in the hall. Obviously, there were many kids in class. I shouldn't say that, you know, it was mayhem, but it really didn't have that sense of, this is a house of learning in the way that it had been described to me by my mother and my father and my uncle and my cousin.
NNAMDIHow much of your desire to tell the story came out of a feeling that if it wasn't told that people who still knew it, the people who didn't think of it as a basketball or a football power, that people who still lived it would fade away? What kind of urgency did you come to this project with?
STEWARTOh, an incredible amount of urgency, both professionally and personally. One of the things I've said to people is my parents both passed away during the writing of this book. And it also became very clear to me that the story would disappear with the graduates and before I even knew what I was doing, I'd never written a book before, I just decided. I just needed to start to interview people and I did it in a very haphazard and crazy way.
STEWARTI just started writing, figuring out who I wanted to talk to and write to them because I knew these people were in their 70s, 80s and 90s. And a funny story is I, in my exuberance, in my haste, I wrote a bunch of letters and I sent them out and one was returned to me corrected by a Dunbar graduate in red pen because I had...
NNAMDIOh, I know who I'm dealing with now.
STEWARTIt was actually the best thing that ever happened to me. It really put me on notice and, you know, despite my excitement, I realized, oh, yeah, this is what I'm dealing with. That was just a very funny moment.
NNAMDIWell, you embarked on this journey like a reporter with a deadline because we don't have time to sit around conceiving of the plot. First, we start writing the story instantly, so she starting writing letters instantly.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Alison Stewart. She is the author of "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School." We're inviting you to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What pieces of history about Washington's education system or Washington's African-American history do you think are in danger of being lost if efforts are not made to preserve them? Give us a call at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDICan we go all the way back, Alison, to the beginning for a minute? Because there's a historical context that's important to understand. You write that two years after the District itself was established in 1804, its charter was amended to provide public education. Where did race fit into the original idea for public education in the District?
STEWARTWell, the public schools were established for white students and white students only. But the interesting thing in Washington D.C. was while the government did not provide public schools for black students, African-American students, colored students as they called them, it was not illegal to teach free coloreds in the District.
STEWARTSo therefore schools started popping up in churches, in homes. Northern Quakers were coming down to teach. You know, the first schoolhouse, physical building, was built by three laborers who were illiterate, but wanted to have a schoolhouse for their children. And it was built, I believe, in 1807 and a white, Northern Quaker came down to be the teacher and that's the Bell School after George Bell [sp?] whose wife had to buy his freedom for $400 before they could even conceive of building a school.
STEWARTSo there was this sense that in Washington, if you could figure out how to do it and how to do it safely, I have to add, because many of these schools were run out of the homes they were in. Many of the teachers who came down, many of the Quakers from the North that came down, were threatened.
STEWARTBut you could possibly, possibly get educated in Washington D.C. if you were a colored American.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that Thomas Jefferson himself was the president of the first D.C. School Board of Trustees and even contributed money to start an endowment. But how did people feel about the idea of public education in the District at the time?
STEWARTIt's so interesting. It was considered -- they were considered pauper schools. And I think I write in the book that some people thought about public schools the way some people think about public toilets, that that was not seen as something that you should -- you should only have public schools for the students who needed it the most, the poorest, poorest of students.
STEWARTBut there was a campaign to change that idea about public schools, that they should be schools for all, was the campaign. And ultimately that came to include colored Washingtonians. And I want to say the reason I'm using that word, and I write about it in my forward, is I chose to use the word colored and Negro and Black and African-American as the words were used during those times and as various newspapers, news sources like The New York Times and The Atlantic decided to change the language.
STEWARTAnd it was very interesting, one of the editors of the book said, this is making me really uncomfortable. I said, well, that's good. It should make you uncomfortable to hear that kind of language and that sort of discomfort to really understand how people were living and how they were receiving descriptions of themselves.
NNAMDIBecause if you're going to paint a picture, it's got to have authentic context and the language provides a very important context for the times in which Dunbar evolved. Let's go to the phones. Here is Keith in Washington, D.C. Keith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEITHHello, everyone. I'm going to bring up that at one point to get into Dunbar, regardless of whether you came from another state or if you were a Washingtonian, you had to pass what they call, is the paper bag test and I'd like to know if that is written about in your book. And also...
NNAMDIWell, before you go any further, Keith, what is your source for that story?
KEITHUm, I went to Dunbar and for one year, in 1980 to 1981, and there was a teacher, a Mrs. Hamilton. She had been there for years. And there was another teacher, Mr. Whalley [sp?]. And I am very fair-skinned. He wouldn't even say, well, [unintelligible] is a distant relative, but I'm whiter than the mayor. And they came up to me and approached and asked who was my parent that went to Dunbar?
KEITHAnd you know, I told them, hey, my parents didn't go to Dunbar and they told me the story about the paper bag test at Dunbar. And I'm sure [word?] Gray is familiar with it.
NNAMDIWell, we'll get to that in a second, but first, here's Alison Stewart.
STEWARTYeah, you know, it's so interesting and I write in the book when I first -- one of the times I got into a cab to go to Dunbar and the cab driver said, oh, that's only for light -- that place is only for light-skinned Blacks. And I said, yeah, well, where are you from? How do you know that? And he said, oh, I'm from New York. It's just what I heard.
STEWARTAnd I thought, as I was interviewing people for the book, I thought I'm going to have to ask this question. And it came up in every conversation naturally and organically. And I knew I had to write about it and I devoted a chapter to it. I will say this. I didn't find anywhere, in any documentation, in any way that there was a paper bag test.
STEWARTThere was no paper bag taped to the door and you couldn't go in or not go in. There was an exam to get in if you came from out of state. You had to have your 8th grade entrance card. I went to the Sumner Archives and I looked at every yearbook since 1923 to see, what's going on here? And I can say I honestly saw the range of colors that we all are as African-Americans.
NNAMDIThat paper bag urban legend can also be applied to Howard University and a number of historically black colleges and universities, where it turned out not to be true also.
STEWARTYeah, I think it was a part of D.C.'s social fabric is what I came to sort of wrap it into the school and there have been numerous books. There have been documentaries. There's a great documentary now called "Dark Girls" about this color issue and it's not just in the black community. It's in the Latino community as well and it's a social thing.
STEWARTAnd I think the reason it has struck so hard in D.C. and stuck to Dunbar's history I think is twofold.
STEWARTI think one is because it happened socially. It may have happened in social clubs. It may happen with families, people's personal issues. Was it part of the academic fabric and the reason for the school's existence? I don't believe so. Do I think it happened to people and it was painful and hurtful? For sure. people will tell you stories. My uncle is fairly dark-skinned and he will tell stories of being turned away from parties.
STEWARTThe other reason I think it has really stuck to Dunbar's history -- and I think unfairly, I'll be honest, I think -- because I don't think that's what the school was about. I believe when the original school was torn down in the 1970s and there was such a fierce battle about it, that was a lot of the drumbeat for the people who wanted old Dunbar torn down. And a lot of it was assigned to Dunbar, this colorism and its light-skins only. And honestly, the yearbooks don't prove that to be true.
NNAMDIWell, Mayor Vincent Gray who himself is a graduate of Dunbar -- he went to Dunbar in the 1950s -- when confronted with the notion that the school was not maybe just -- just practiced colorism, but that it was also elitist, he had this to say.
MAYOR VINCENT GRAYWell, I think a substantial part, the view of Dunbar has this kind of elite place where these people from well heeled backgrounds came, I think that's myth. There are lots of folks who went to Dunbar even before me who really came from challenged social circumstances and didn't have a lot of means.
NNAMDIAnd, Keith, that's what Mayor Gray had to say about it, but thank you very much for your call. Allison.
STEWARTYeah, I would say that I found -- I had heard that myth as well and I found the class rosters of what people's parents did. And they were furriers and hair dressers and truck drivers. And the mayor grew up very humble, one-bedroom apartment. A lot of single-parent families. Of course there were doctors and there were lawyers. That's not to say otherwise. I always joke that if there were that many doctors and lawyers coming out, we'd be a lot better place.
STEWARTI mean, the numbers don't bear it up. If you have 800 students in Washington D.C. Dunbar High School at any given time during these decades, if they were all doctors and lawyers, I don't think there are that many in D.C.
NNAMDIEven thought Eleanor Holmes Norton herself is quoted as saying that, "If you wanted to go to college, Dunbar was the place that you went to." We've got to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. What are steps you feel are most important for the district to take to restore the kind of pride Dunbar once instilled in African American communities in the 20th century? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the history and evolution of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. We're talking with Alison Stewart. She is the author of the book "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Public Black High School." She's a journalist. She'd worked during the past several decades for NPR, PBS, MSNBC and MTV. If you'd like to join the conversation you can go to our website kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org or simply call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIAlison, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Dunbar building yesterday, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson quoted from your book. She drew from the chapter about Myrtilla Miner, the woman who spearheaded the establishment of the city's first public schooling opportunities for blacks. Who was Myrtilla Miner and how did she manage to get this idea off the ground?
STEWARTMyrtilla Miner was a very interesting woman. She was a very small, frail woman from New York who wanted to be educated herself and came up against about sexism at the time. She wanted to continue her education and finally got herself into a school for young women to learn to teach. But to pay off her debts she had to go teach in the south. So she taught to plantation owners' children but she saw young girls the same age in the fields. And when she asked, can I teach those girls too, they told her well, that's illegal. What are you talking about? That is ridiculous.
STEWARTAnd she realized that the one way to begin an education movement among colored Americans was to teach colored Americans to teach their own. And she knew about D.C., what we had discussed earlier, that it was not illegal to teach in D.C. So she made up her mind to come to Washington, D.C. to start a school to teach young colored girls to teach.
NNAMDIAnd when she said she was going to do that to Frederick Douglas, he essentially told her, you're crazy.
STEWARTYou're crazy. This is dangerous. And he wasn't wrong. She was burned out of the school building several times. She had to learn to shoot a gun, but she set up a school. People came from all over and said, please just take my one daughter. I want her to bed educated. So what she did was she created legions of young black women who could teach. So they could go into the school system and teach further. And the Miner school became a real outlet for graduates of Dunbar.
STEWARTMany graduates of Dunbar ended up going to Miner's teacher's college because it was quite affordable. And then they went back into the D.C. school system and populated it with these unbelievably dedicated and excellent teachers. So she really started the force of the teaching force that Dunbar became known for, this excellent, excellent teaching force.
NNAMDIAnd, you know, when I first came to town there was something called D.C. teacher's Miners college. And you said to yourself, who is this Miner person? Well, if you read the book "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School," you now know who this Miner person was. It was Myrtilla Miner. Allow me to go back to the telephones to Beverly in Washington, D.C. Hi, Beverly.
BEVERLYHi. This is a fascinating show, so congratulations, Alison, on the book. I am also a historian and I've been doing a little bit of research in through turn of the century D.C. public schools but particularly Central High School. One of the things that's been very striking to me is how similar the culture that you describe at Dunbar is to the culture that I've seen at Central. It's this kind of incredible rigor, incredible enthusiasm of an optimism about public education and what it's going to be. So I wonder if you kind of looked at that bigger picture of kind of the D.C. public school system.
BEVERLYThe other thing that I wanted to say quickly is that one of the documents that I came across in doing this research was of a child who was petitioning to be able to attend white schools. And then the school board had to decide her race.
BEVERLYIt was a fascinating discussion because many of the black educators are saying, well, we support her going to a black school because our schools are just as good as the white schools. And therefore, we're deciding that, you know, she's not harmed by being kept out of white schools. And it's just this fascinating discussion that's about skin color and it's also about this kind of competition really, that was there between the white and black schools.
NNAMDIWell, thank you, Beverly. Here's Alison.
STEWARTYeah, there are two things that I want to unpack with what Beverly talked about. Yeah, one of my favorite headlines I found was "Girl 128th Negro Sent -- Returned to Colored School." And then we start talking about color lines. It's kind of amazing. Yeah, there were several cases of students who were going to white schools. And someone decided, hey I knew your great, great grandfather was black and I'm bringing it up to the school board. And the school board had to decide.
STEWARTBut to your point about the schools being parallel, it was so very interesting. They were -- the black high school, Dunbar, its predecessor M Street were rivals. I mean, in terms of there's a longstanding situation where in 1899 the colored school outranked the white school in terms of a test. And a lot of people felt that that may have been the turning point of the board of education wanting to take over the colored schools.
STEWARTAnd interestingly for Central, the architect of Central, they actually tried to get William Bietner [sp?] of St. Louis, Mo. to be the architect of Dunbar. But he said he was busy. He was doing the white school, which had twice the budget. And then they ended up going with Snowden Ashford who was the local municipal architect. But, yeah, the sense that Washington, D.C. had great schools.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Beverly. To what extent was this early year of public black education in Washington, D.C. a reflection of the politics of post Civil War D.C.? particularly in African American communities. There were a lot of freed blacks in Washington with political connections, savvy and in some cases money.
STEWARTAnd voting power. Yeah, it's so interesting. My sister and I were talking about how the rhythms of our country's history repeat themselves. So you had this very exciting time after the Civil War when all of these inroads were made with the Freedman's Bureaus and schools being set up and black people being voted into office and being able to get jobs.
STEWARTAnd then once reconstruction ended, as they call it in the South, the redemption began, and all the Jim Crow laws came into power. And they started to slowly take away and unravel all of the laws and all of the advances that black Americans had started to make. In the 19th -- the early part of the 20th century, middle class starts to grow again in Washington, D.C. Jobs and government starts to get bigger and bigger. Woodrow Wilson come into office and re-segregates the government.
STEWARTAlmost overnight you had to produce an ID and the bathrooms were separate and the entrances were separate. And many African Americans who had made great advances lost their jobs. There's an interesting story about a family in there who the father had grown to be quite powerful in the government printing office and ended up actually losing his family farm and home once he lost his job, once Wilson came into office.
STEWARTSo there was this sense of the -- I get the sense that it was so much a part of the black middle class thriving right after the war and the creation of it, and periodically having these resurgences never really disappearing, but stronger at different times in Washington. And when the black middle class was strong, the schools were strong. When the schools were strong, the black middle class was strong.
NNAMDIYou know, in the same way that Lee Daniels the Butler attempts to use the movie as a kind of historical reflection on the Civil Rights movement, in a lot of ways this is precisely what this book "First Class" is. Because few people are as important to Dunbar's history as Anna J. Cooper, a woman who became the principal of the school that eventually became Dunbar M Street High School. Cooper established the academic curriculum that formed the basis of the school's reputation.
NNAMDIBut she also found herself in the middle of a great philosophical debate that was taking place at the time about black education between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Can you explain?
STEWARTSure. Anna J. Cooper was this brilliant intellectual. She was a feminist. And she actually became a little bit of a casualty of that rift. The question was whether or not black Americans at that time should concentrate their efforts on becoming educated or should they concentrate their efforts on manual labor, on trades, on becoming and owning their own businesses.
STEWARTAnd she was a real believer -- she actually came in the middle. Truthfully, Anna J. Cooper came in the middle but because of her association with DuBois and she had invited DuBois to speak at Dunbar and he had...
NNAMDIBut Booker T. Also spoke there.
STEWARTHe did. He was very popular and very powerful in Washington, D.C. And many people owed their careers to Booker T. Washington. And of course what he said wasn't wrong. I mean, he was a great leader but there was that idea that there was -- you had to pick one side or the other. And she would not roll back the curriculum at M Street or Dunbar. She did not want to have trades in the school. And she was persecuted for it by the school board.
NNAMDIYou say that Cooper might have been one of the original opponents of the idea of teaching to the test. We hear about that a lot these days in the modern debate about education, but talk about that.
STEWARTYeah, she was a person who would look at the students individually because so many times some of the kids who had arrived at M Street and Dunbar who were very bright may have been underserved in their early education. And there were school-wide tests and tests that you had to pass. But if she saw a student who needed extra help or needed extra time, she would allow that. And she got in trouble for it. And she got in trouble for vouching for a student who may not have passed all the way but had great heart and wanted to learn but hadn't been well prepared. And she would help that student advance. And the board of education said, you cannot do that.
STEWARTShe really went out of her way to treat each student as an individual. If she saw a student that she thought was an excellent student, she would write specifically to a college in the north to Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Overland and say, I have a qualified negro candidate for you. I want you to come look at this candidate. And very interestingly -- you know, I don't know if we want to open the debate about charter schools -- but the Kipp Schools are now doing the same thing.
STEWARTThey are establishing these partnerships with universities where the university will promise, not to necessarily accept one of their students but they promise to look at ten students or five students from certain Kipp academies, in essence doing what Anna Julia Cooper did in saying, look I have qualified students for you. Please look here.
NNAMDINo need to open the debate about charter schools here because, well, it's never closed.
NNAMDIHere is Janie in Washington, D.C. Janie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANIEHi. Hello, Kojo. Alison, I am loving your book. I've got everybody in my book club reading it, so thank you so much.
JANIEI graduated from Dunbar in '69 and went on to have the great honor to work at the White House. I was not a Democrat so that was a miracle in itself. But I found myself writing a speech for Mrs. Clinton, who was later going to visit the school. This is in the second term, so the late '90s. And Tom Hanks and Commander Collins, who was the first woman to man -- not man, but she was accompany or command a ship [unintelligible] .
JANIEAnyway, I had the honor of writing -- I took the liberty -- I guess that's the best word to use -- of writing my name into her speech, which of course I'd never done before or since, as a graduate of the high school. And obviously she read it and kept it in and during the speech had me stand and say, see, there's someone on my staff that sat in those very chairs that you did. So that was a moment that I will never, obviously, ever forget.
JANIEAnd the one thing, if I could add, that the teachers at Dunbar -- I am a proud D.C. public school graduate. The thing that they did with us is that they said to us over and over and over again, you are exceptional. You are special. You come from a rich legacy and you can do and go anywhere. So since then I have worked in Switzerland at the WHO. I've been a commissioner in New York. And I credit those teachers and my parents with saying, you can do anything you want. So I'm back in D.C. now. I'm working...
NNAMDIIt sounds like you took it literally, Janie. You did everything you wanted to do. Thank you very much for your call, Janie. Here's Alison Stewart.
STEWARTOne of the things that was so difficult about writing this book, Kojo, was there are so many people I could interview and talk to. And I could write about her. I mean, there are so many people I interviewed. I would love to have included every single story, but that -- it's a testament to the school that that would be impossible to include all the people who were extraordinary.
STEWARTAnd also I want to say that all the people who went and became -- who aren't household names, who are just the strong backbone of the middle class, and especially all the teachers that came out of Dunbar. I have great respect for teachers. And one thing that I did notice and heard repeatedly from people was exactly what Beverly said about the sense of, you were expected to be excellent. You were told you were excellent.
STEWARTAnd the thing I think that is the best thing is that the graduates of Dunbar were excellent so that they couldn't be denied when they went out into an inhospitable world. Into a world that didn't necessarily think that young negro kids were smart enough or possibly even morally intellectually and socially inferior. They could not be denied and that was one of the great things that Dunbar did, is it sent all these people out into the world.
STEWARTI tell a story about my mom as a school teacher being challenged by a young -- she was the first black school teacher in New Rochelle, N.Y. And a young man standing in front of her class and saying, my father told me I don't have to listen to you. And she said, well, your father's not here so sit down.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Janie. We move on to Jack in Annapolis, Md. Jack, your turn.
JACKOkay. Good afternoon. My name is Jack Nelson and I'm a native Washingtonian now living in Annapolis. And I graduated from Dunbar in 1957.
NNAMDICome back, Jack.
JACKYeah, okay. I'm enjoying retirement in Annapolis right now. But anyway, I went to Dunbar, the youngest of six. All six of us, my siblings, we all went to Dunbar High School. And given that background, I just wanted to make a comment. From what I read about Dunbar, my understanding is that Dunbar actually started in the basement of 15th Street Presbyterian Church at 15th and R.
NNAMDIWe mentioned that earlier.
JACKAnd yes -- the 15 Street Presbyterian Church. And you were talking earlier about, you know, the middle class, you know, college orientation of Dunbar and N Street High School, those are the roots that it came from. 15th Street Presbyterian Church was like a bastion of middle class black Washington. Elizabeth Keckley, you know, what worked with, you know, Abraham Lincoln's wife very closely...
JACK...and was a confidante, was a member of 15th Street Presbyterian Church as were most, you know, many -- not most, many prominent blacks in Washington in that, you know, early/mid 1800s period where Dunbar has its roots. Anyway, I just wanted to make that comment and...
JACK...the other comment I want to make, first of all, I need to also -- before I forget, find out where to get your book. I'd like to get it. But let me say, I think the issue about the skin color is a myth. In the time that I was at Dunbar, I was the youngest of six. All my brothers and sisters went to Dunbar. Dunbar at the time was based on talent. The people who rose to the highest within the ROTC, who were honor society, it was how smart you were. It had nothing to do with the color of your skin.
JACKI mean, there truly was a rainbow situation. I went to school with people from all different colors from white to black, and how -- how well you did when you were at Dunbar during the time that I was there, and I think it previously really had to do with your talent whether it was athletic or whether it was...
NNAMDIJack, we've got to take a short break, but thank you very much for your call. You did ask about where you would be able to get the book. Well, you can get it online, of course, at amazon.com or any good bookstore, but you should also know that Alison Stewart will be speaking about her book at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington. That's next Monday, August 26. That event will take place at 7:00 p.m. Politics and Prose where, of course, you can also get the book, is at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest. I don't know if there's anything you'd like to add in terms of how he can acquire the book.
STEWARTI'll just let you know I found out this morning the book went into second printing. So if you go online and see that it's not available right away, don't believe everything you read online. It will be available by the end of the month.
NNAMDIAnd if you've called, stay on the line. We're going to take a short break, but we'll be right back. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think needs to happen if the quality of the education being given at D.C.'s public schools is to match the quality of some of the new buildings in which those schools operate? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Alison Stewart. She is the author of "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Public Black High School." Alison Stewart is a journalist who during the past several decades has worked for NPR, PBS, MSNBC, and MTV. I will go to an elementary question because we've gotten several emails asking who's Dunbar?
STEWARTVery good. Yay for the people who asked that question. Paul Laurence Dunbar was a great American poet. He was the first black poet to achieve national and international prominence. He was not alive when the school was named after him, and what Paul Laurence Dunbar did, which was really extraordinary at the time in the late 19th century is that his poems gave depth and gave a different perception of the black American spirit, of emotion, of all the feeling and what it meant to be -- have internal feelings expressed through verse in such a way that had never really been done before.
STEWARTAnd he wrote in two different ways. He wrote in a very standard traditional language, and he also wrote in a dialect language, and sadly, much -- it bothered him for most of his life that most of his praise was for the dialect language at the time. But he wrote some beautiful lyrical poetry, and one of the poems that he wrote is the motto of Dunbar. It's called "Keep a Plugging Away." And it is now permanently in the new school. It's the first thing you see when you walk in, and the basis of the poem is don't let anything get in your way, you just keep a plugging away.
STEWARTAnd every Dunbar graduate I interviewed, I don't care how old they were, could recite the entire poem. I can't recite the entire poem, but they could recite the entire poem, and it was really the mantra of the school. Keep trying. If the hills are high, if the ocean swells, keep a plugging away. So, I actually went to the Paul Laurence Dunbar house in Dayton, Ohio, because I wanted to see where he lived and where he wrote, and it was really -- it was an amazing experience to stand in the same room where he passed away.
STEWARTA house he had built for his mother. And to just see the -- one of the his typewriters is there, you know. It's just very inspiring.
NNAMDIA lot of young people don't know what a typewriter looks like, but that's another story. Got an email from John Yota [sp?] who says, "I'm a former Dunbar teacher. I'm glad Alison is reviving Dunbar's history, and that Dunbar has a new facility. It was very hard to teach there because in addition to widespread absenteeism, there was a on campus shooting one year I was there, no outside recess and a lot of fear. One of my students was in a wheelchair because of a shooting.
NNAMDIBut finally a favorite poet of mine, Sterling Brown, was a graduate of Dunbar, it was when it was M Street School." And then John writes, "I think Alison is a Brown grad. I am too. My mom and I enjoyed watching her on 'Need to Know.' Congratulations on completing the book."
STEWARTThank you. Well, you know, I left the PBS show "Need to Know" to finish this book. It was very important to me at the time. I have a small child who's five, and both of my parents, mentioned at the top of the show passed away during the writing of this book, so I sort of did an emotional check and said, okay, which -- what am I going to regret? Am I going to regret being on TV for a year, or am I going to regret not being there with my family when they need me.
STEWARTSo I quit the show and finished the book, and was with my -- where I needed to be when my parents passed and able to keep my five year old in line.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of your parents, one of the people who was trekking across town to get to Dunbar was your dad, Joe Stewart. How did going to Dunbar in your view shape his perspective? It's my understanding that he literally passed three high schools every day to go to the one where he could go.
STEWARTHe was such an interesting case, because my dad actually grew up Harlem, New York, and he had gone to integrated schools, and his best pals were Rudy and Val on 143rd Street and they used to ride around the subway. And my grandmother used to joke that nobody said Joe Stewart and college in the same sentence when he was a freshman. So she picked him up and they moved to Washington to live with the grandparents, and my grandfather worked in the post office in New York, which was a good job at the time. So he stayed.
STEWARTAnd when he got to D.C., he said I don't think anybody mentioned that my school was going to be segregated. And he had a real problem with it. He was -- I mean, my dad was a very lovely affable, lovely man, elegant man, but he was very angry about it as a young man that he was not able to go to school wherever he wanted to go near where he lived, and he became a young protestor protesting against various...
NNAMDI[word?] hiring practices for one.
STEWART[unintelligible] hiring practices. And I think it really shaped him in the sense that he understood how important mentors were, because while he disagreed with being complacent in any way with segregation, he understood that those teachers cared about those kids, and they were invested in what happened next with the kids at Dunbar. And his track coach -- he was a big track guy, was really invested in making sure he got home to do his homework and that he was thinking about the Merchant Marine Academy and that -- all these things.
STEWARTAnd something he'd never forget. He was a real mentor to a lot of young men and woman, very quietly, very privately throughout his career. And I think that that sense of giving back, and I've heard that from a lot of Dunbar graduates, we've been given this excellent education, now you have to go out, do something, and then give back. I think that was what he actually ended up learning at Dunbar.
NNAMDIOne of the reasons the education was so excellent was because of the teachers they were privileged to have at Dunbar in those days. We talked with D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, herself a Dunbar graduate, and she talked about those teachers.
MS. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONOur teachers consisted of a very unusual group of people. Some of them had PhDs, but at a time when African-Americans were not welcome in any but HBCUs, those left over PhDs were often found at Dunbar, and all of them were very well educated people whose aspirations inspired us, and who had seen segregated class after segregated class come through Dunbar High School, and now knew that what everyone had thought should end was ending and there were teachers who cried.
MS. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONIt was an extraordinary day to be sitting in any segregated classroom, but especially at Dunbar High School.
NNAMDIThat was when Brown v. Board of Education was passed when Eleanor was a student at Dunbar High School at that time. She was commenting on the high quality of the teachers they had there, and as you pointed out, your father said the teachers were also deeply invested in the students. As you heard Eleanor say, they cried when they realized that things were going to change.
STEWARTYeah. One Dunbar graduate said, you know, the rallying cry had been integration, integration, integration, and nobody thought about what would happen to Dunbar when the school would go from being a magnet school to a neighborhood school. The other thing is your teachers knew your parents and your parents knew your teachers. My uncle who I mentioned earlier was a little bit of a rascal, and he would say if he had done something wrong, it had gone through the teacher grapevine, and by the time he got home his mother knew about it.
NNAMDIYeah. That's the way it worked. Here is Claire in Washington D.C. Claire, your turn.
CLAIREI have to tell you, I have the privilege of reading for the blind, and I had the even better privilege of running across Paul Laurence Dunbar as one of the assignments that I had to read. He's a brilliant writer, and he is really not very well known. I also know that a lot of people don't know that Dunbar was named after him, the school. But the thing that caught me the most was the line, I know why the caged bird sings was from Paul Laurence Dunbar.
CLAIREA lot of people think Maya Angelou had it, but it was Paul Laurence Dunbar.
NNAMDIThat's why she choose it because she was an admirer of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
CLAIREYes. I'm sure she was. But a lot of people don't realize that he came up with that wonderful line. His writing is absolutely brilliant, but he had a very sad life. He really did not profit by his brilliance. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to tell you that it was -- everybody should read Paul Laurence Dunbar.
NNAMDIEvery little bit counts, Claire. Thank you very much for your contribution to the conversation. Alison, how much better did you feel you understood your own parents and the people they eventually became by making such a close study of this part of their lives?
STEWARTI think I grew to understand what a team they were and for how long they were a team. You know, they had met in high school, and they were married nearly 55 years, and were married here by Reverend James O. West.
NNAMDIThat's probably one of the instructions they got in Dunbar, you can't breakup.
STEWARTYou two stay together. You're good folks. I came to understand what role models they were for me, not just for me and my sister but for everybody they encountered. One of the things my dad said to me in an interview was, you know, there are whole legions of white students in New York who have had your mother as a teacher, who have experienced a black woman in a way that they probably never would have otherwise.
STEWARTAnd I came to understand their huge contribution in my life. I have everything I ever -- my whole life is because of them, all the good things in my life. But how that one interaction with someone can make such a difference and have a chain reaction. So how important -- and I thought about all those one interactions of all those Dunbar graduates have had with somebody, and how -- and it isn't hyperbole when I say this, how Dunbar High School changed America. And I came to see that on the micro scale of my parents, and then the macro scale of all of Dunbar graduates who have gone forward and done so well.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you were at the ribbon cutting for the new Dunbar, the First and N facility, a state-of-the-art facility. It has a museum on the school's history, it has plaques all across the building that highlight famous alumni. When you walk through that new building, do you think that from at least a visceral level the city seems to be on the right track in preserving and bringing back some of the history that was lost when the old building went down and the school began to change, when they tore that old building down back in the early 1970s?
STEWARTI'm so glad that the history of the school is physically built into the building so that it cannot be lost. That is, I think, so important, and I'm paraphrasing here, but I think it was Marcus Garvey who said, a culture in ethnicity that doesn't know its history is like a tree without its roots. And I think it's so important -- you can't relive the past -- you cannot recreate Dunbar, but you can be inspired by its history, the fight for it, the fight for it to stay being a good school, the excellence and the extraordinary achievements of its graduates.
STEWARTI'm so glad students will walk by that every day. You walk about that every day and, you know, they've left some of those plaques blank on the floor with the idea, that could be you. Maybe you're going to be the person who discovers the cure to the [word?] disease.
NNAMDIYour name could be there someday.
STEWARTYour name could be there.
NNAMDILet me go to somebody who had your experience, parents and grandparents all went to Dunbar. Campbell, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAMPBELLWell, thank you so very much, and, yes, indeed. My grandfather was a grad of M Street and became a Colonel in the Army and was the highest ranking black in the military for many years, and also was involved in integrating the Armed Forces, and that's probably why he never got a star, because that was back in the day.
CAMPBELLAnd I remember he was telling -- he had told me about A. Phillip Randolph who was a school mate of his, and said that they use to call him the human dictionary. So -- and I live right around the corner from Anna Cooper's house, and my grandfather certainly was involved in this legacy to the greatest extent. He had -- he was founder of so many of the settlement houses here in D.C., he was the executive secretary of the 12th Street Y at the same time that he was on active duty with the Army. Now, I don't how he was able to do that...
NNAMDII'm going to tell you Campbell we're running out of time, but if you read, "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School," for you it might seem autobiographical if you read the book. So thank you very much for your call. We're running out of time, Alison. It's a different era, but what sense do you get for how the blueprint that made Dunbar what it was can be applied to schools like the modern version of Dunbar today?
STEWARTThe school is beautiful, the new school, and I know the building's important, but it's really about the human capital, because that's what made Dunbar great. For the first 20 years, there wasn't any facility, there wasn't school for Dunbar. It was about the people who went there, the teachers who went there, and the community that invested itself in that school.
NNAMDIAlison Stewart. She is the author of "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School." Thank you so much for joining us.
STEWARTThank you. If you have a Dunbar story, send it to me. Go to my website, alisonstewart.net. I update it with stories from Dunbar graduates, and I also established a scholarship I want to say called the First Class Scholarship with the United Negro College Fund. I took my book advance in because I wanted to see the next great Dunbar graduate who needed a little bit of cash go on and do something.
NNAMDIAlison Stewart. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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