Former MTV political commentator Alison Stewart spoke about her book “First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School” on Monday, August 26th at Politics and Prose.
Dunbar was originally named Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in 1870. It had one teacher and 15 students. Professor Francis L. Cardozo (for whom Cardozo High School is named after) served as a principal from 1884 to 1896. From 1892 to 1916, it was named M Street High School. Three outstanding educators—Anna J. Cooper, William T.S. Jackson, and Edward C. Williams—served as principals. In 1916, the school was renamed Dunbar in honor of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Some schools were technical. Some schools were agricultural. Dunbar was an academic institution. The teachers taught students Latin, grammar, and Shakespeare. Students were taught how to manage time for academics, work, and extracurricular activities. Conduct books were written for children on how to behave in social norms. They defied the racist theory that African-Americans were intellectually inferior.
Dunbar showed students that there were more opportunities for them outside of music and entertainment. The high school turned out the most upstanding leaders such as former U.S. Senator Edward Brooke; Dr. Charles R. Drew; and Mayor Vincent Gray.
“There is always a spirit in Dunbar,” Stewart told the audience.
Dunbar High encouraged students to fulfill their hopes and dreams. Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King, who graduated from Dunbar in 1957, is living proof of it.
“Dunbar showed us what we could become,” he said. “It placed an emphasis on achievement and represented our people when we reached adult life.”
Dunbar alumni, most who graduated from the school in the 1940s and 1950s, were in attendance. Their memories of high school were vivid. It was like going back into time. Ferial Bishop, class of 1956, enjoyed studying grammar.
“Students had a whole semester of studying grammar,” she said. “It helped students to speak eloquently. Dr. Madison Tignor taught grammar.”
The changing political and social climate from the 1960s onward categorized Dunbar High School as another troubled inner city school. However, there is a beacon of hope as the school has gone through a major renovation. Dunbar’s history is a reflection of how far African-Americans have and continue to make achievements in the face of prejudice, discrimination and oppression. Ms. Stewart’s book is insightful showing that there is a fighting spirit to excel and achieve.
Alison Stewart started the research in 2006. Her parents told her their experiences at Dunbar. Her mother graduated in 1947; father in 1946; and grandfather 1915. She did some old school research looking through yearbooks; writing letters; and contacting the alumni association. She quit her job at PBS to write the book. And the effort was worth it.
First Class is a documentary of what it was like to be in high school during segregation. Stories of hope in the midst of adversity should always be told for the next generation of students.