Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 5 Bricks & Mortarboards

This year for Black History Month we’ll review chapter by chapter Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. This is more Truxton Circle related then this blog’s previous annual looks at Shaw resident and founder of Negro History Week (later Black history month) Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s Mis-Education of the Negro. As Dunbar High School is located in Truxton Circle currently taking up all of Square 554.

In this chapter we move from the M Street School because it was overcrowded and finally get the original Dunbar High School building in Truxton Circle. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the school, the current Dunbar High building is version 3.0. The second version was a tall prison like building that was ugly as sin and needed to be torn down.

M Street, a Black DC high school, did not have the facilities that the White high schools had, such as a cafeteria or a gym. Of course there was a lot of drama and politicking to get the new Black high school built. There was an idea to build it on the Howard campus.

There is a section in the chapter about Paul Laurence Dunbar, for whom Dunbar High School is named. He was a Dayton, OH resident and friend of the Wright Brothers. He was known in Dayton for being an elevator poet, hawking his published poems to his riders. It appears he was a victim of audience capture, where the larger White audience liked his Black sounding poems, pigeonholing him as a Black poet for Black poems, as opposed to just being an American poet. He died before the school was built in 1906 at the age of 33.

Finally, on 1st Street NW, between O and N Streets NW, on October 2, 1916 Dunbar High opened to serve 1,117 students. It was a vast improvement over the M Street building. It had a cafeteria, and a gym, and a library, chemistry labs, and a rifle range. Probably the only time guns at school was a good thing, supervised by responsible adults.