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.
The sixth chapter gets into the culture of Dunbar High and the teachers’ and administrators’ efforts to form future Black leaders. Not only did they have high academic standards, they also enforced high standards regarding appearance, hygiene and other mannerisms. It had elements of a finishing school when looking at the rules regarding how students were to conduct themselves.
Not everyone likes high standards and later we’ll see it manifest itself in hatred towards Dunbar by those within the DC Black community. But immediately, Dunbar started to lose students and the standards was one of the reasons cited. There are three reasons mentioned by the author: failing out; transfer to the technical high schools such as Armstrong; needing to work. The Great Migration, where US African Americans began moving out of the South to other parts of the country was just starting. Students from previously poorly run Southern country schools were probably ill prepared for the rigors at Dunbar.
Right or wrong, the faculty felt the way to preserve Dunbar was ti keep the academic bar astronomically high. The school was not a democracy but a meritocracy or a dictatorship, with academic expectation as the undeniable, unchallenged boss.
Being a Dunbar student was a way of life. The strong program was a given and was the reason why students went to Dunbar. And would excel, period. The school adopted a crest and a Latin motto, Adveris Major, Par Secundis (Greater Adversity, Equal in Prosperity).
In the handbook students were instructed in how to behave in public and on and off campus. Young ladies were cautioned by the assistant principal Miss Julia Evangeline Brooks to not powder their faces in school other than the dressing or locker rooms. She also dictated the kinds of fabrics girls should have, favoring gingham and washable fabrics over silks and chiffon.
The author also notes Booker T. Washington’s, “The Gospel of the Toothbrush.” Teaching and enforcing good hygiene was another Dunbar value. The author wrote, “Cleanliness was the American way or the upper and middle classes, and striving Negroes knew appearing immaculate was the key to their acceptance and future prosperity.” The rules and enforcement regarding hygiene and cleanliness was not equal for the sexes. Boys were encouraged to bathe daily, brush teeth more often and be neat in appearance. It seemed no one was telling them what fabrics they should and shouldn’t wear.
The punishment for failing to adhere to the rules was to go to the assistant principal’s office. Those who continued failure to maintain standards would have to reregister to return to the school.
It may seem harsh, but you can’t argue with results. The first class to go through all 4 years, the Class of 1920 included Wm. Mercer Cook and William Allison Davis. An ambassador and an anthropologist.