Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 17 Back to the Future

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.

We’ve finally made it to the last chapter of the book and from the description the students and staff are still in the 1977 Dunbar building. It’s still hovering around the 2010-2011 academic year. The new building was in the process of being built, there was hope for the future of Dunbar.

There are three views of the school. The first takes place in Matthew Stuart’s English class. The second with Dunbar’s football team on Cardozo’s field. The third is back at Dunbar, in the basement.

It’s the start of the class in Mr. Stuart’s room and students are making their way in. Despite a rule against cell phones, one student came in speaking loudly on his. We’re also told less than half of the students enrolled in his class were present. A picture is painted of what Dunbar’s academics are like. Left unsaid is that they are a far cry from Dunbar’s beginnings.

Next, because of the construction for Dunbar’s new field and the change of layout of the school, the football team was at another school’s playing field. Coach Jerron Joe was a former Dunbar student (2004) and knew of other Dunbar alumni who moved on to the NFL. But Coach Joe did more than coach, he was also a mentor.

The last has us in the basement for girl’s track. This time with Coach Marvin Parker, and like Coach Joe, he’s a mentor to the girls, some of whom live under difficult circumstances. He wanted to break the cycle of poverty for girls, which at the time meant babies having babies. We’re told of a success story, Angela Bonham, who transferred to Dunbar and then excelled on the track and got a 4 year scholarship to GWU. Later we’re also told how Dunbar was essentially ignoring Title IX in favor of football, and Parker was an advocate for getting money for girl’s sports.

Dunbar may never be the academic powerhouse for Black education as it once was. But it is well known for it’s football team. Maybe it’s next chapter will be with athletics over academics. That’s fair. When I was looking at predominately Black private schools in the DC area, I stumbled upon a football schedule where a school I never heard of and couldn’t find was playing against DeMatha. What little I could find seemed to say the whole purpose of the school was for boys to play football. There are parents who value a school based on the school’s athletics. As a parent myself, I’m not going to fault another parent for their values, even if they strongly differ from mine. During the Covid shutdowns, there were Black parents who were very concerned about their sons’ high school sports careers. I found no fault with them.

When I was at the hair dressers getting my hair did, someone mentioned Dunbar. My first thought was for their dismal academic record. However, the barbers and the hairdressers spoke glowingly and lovingly about their football team. And again, I found no fault in them.

Let me conclude and get back to the book. This is a good history of Dunbar. It is not 100% about Dunbar. The author provides a lot of background information, necessary to understand and appreciate the parts that are about the school. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the great history of the school beyond a Wikipedia entry.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 16 New New School

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 late 2011 the wheels started moving to create the 3rd Dunbar building. It was supposed to be the complete opposite of the 2nd Dunbar building. That was a success. The old 1970ish building was a Brutalist prison like structure and the new, current building looks like it belongs on a college campus. It is well lit, has lots of glass, open in a good way.

View of Armstrong Parking Lot from Dunbar High School window. Taken April 2018.

One part of the DC government to take credit for this change for the better is the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM) which was formed in 2007. OPEFM wanted to have a nod to the 1916 building, which there is.  The old building was along 1st St, the 1977 was closer to New Jersey Avenue. The current building is at the corner of 1st and N St NW.

The new building was planned to reflect current values but also make alumni happy. It was planned to be a LEED building. It was in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There was space for metal detectors… we’re not about to forget about the crime. You kidding, we’re still in Shaw. There were nods to great Dunbar alumni built into the building.

Not mentioned in the chapter was another great change with the new building. O Street was reopened. Dunbar II ate O Street. It was not there. The neighborhood gained some extra street parking. It was good.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 15 The Fall

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.

So it’s 2010 and Dunbar is going down. In flames. Figuratively.

Literally it was a hot mess. In the previous chapter the building was not only ugly as sin, it was also in meh to poor condition in need of serious repairs. The open classroom concept worked against classroom management and made it hard to teach. In a school. Where the whole point is to teach students. Crime was a problem. The crime around the school was also inside. Drugs and gambling were inside. And there was a publicized sexual assault of a student in a stairwell.

Mayor Fenty lost to Vincent Gray in 2010. With that polarizing Superintendent Michelle Rhee was not able to remain, even after being heroically portrayed in Waiting for Superman. Gray removed a lot of Fenty’s work, including the Friends of Bedford managing Dunbar. Rhee was replaced by Kaya Henderson and the FoB were replaced by interim principal Stephen Jackson.

Alumni did not seem to care for Jackson because he was a FoB hire. They did not care for the New York connection. Jackson survived that and was able to stick around for the plans for a 3rd Dunbar building.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 14 From Bed-Stuy to Shaw

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 Bed-Stuy in the chapter title refers to a New York neighborhood from which the group Friends of Bedford hailed. It was the earlier part of the Fenty mayoral administration, which meant the Superintendent was Michelle Rhee. This was an environment for trying new things, hiring consultants, throwing more spaghetti at walls. The pasta in this case was Friends of Bedford who were tasked with fixing schools like Dunbar High.

The school building was in poor shape. The Friends of Bedford noted the unsatisfactory ADA compliance,  bad interiors, dirty carpets, an unstable aged roof and ‘fair’ electrical system. FoB had a Summer Blitz where there was cleaning and fixing. Unfortunately, a lot of Dunbar’s history got ditched in the frenzy. Yeah, that happened.

In 2010 there was a very heated race for the mayor and Fenty was replaced by Councilman Vincent Gray. The chapter pointed out that Gray did not like Rhee. A lot of people did not like Rhee. I suspect some did not like her because she wasn’t Black. But many more probably didn’t like her because of all the school closures and other shake ups.

Gray was a Dunbar graduate (1959), but a post-desegregation Dunbar grad. So he didn’t have the same love or romance for the school as the legally segregated Dunbar. He was asked to be the commencement speaker for the class of 2010. Fenty was on the same platform. Both addressed the students. Fenty was booed.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 13 Children Left Behind

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.

This chapter starts in 2008. It’s the Fenty era and Michelle Rhee is the first, and so far only, Asian American DC school chancellor. The chapter name refers to President Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ program.

The author covers the poor education students received in 2008. It didn’t improve. I covered Dunbar’s PARCC scores in 2019 and they are depressing.
PARCC by Race

PARCC Scores 2018-19, % meeting & exceeding expectations
Black White Hispanic Asian
ELA 2018-19 16.5% N/A n<10 N/A
Math 2018-19 .5% N/A n<10 n<10
Males ELA 13.4% N/A n<10 N/A
Males Math .9% N/A n<10 n<10

ELA- basically covers English and Language Arts, that would be reading and writing. And Math is math, numbers, adding, subtracting, figuring out sales tax or a 20% tip. Less than 1% of Dunbar students were proficient in Math.

The chapter covers the school from the 1980s to the aughts. The author mentions the school’s challenges as well as a few success stories as it is not all doom and gloom, despite dismal academics.  But there was a clear academic and cultural difference between pre-desegregation Dunbar and post.

That difference also showed up in a division in the alumni association. The old Dunbar alumni who were held to higher standards and expectations had trouble connecting with the younger alumni. It is not as if the Old Dunbar did not help the New Dunbar students. There were scholarships and a story about a student who was accepted into Amherst College revived a Amherst-Dunbar connection and money flowed to the student.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 12 New School

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.

Southeast on 7th and M Street, 1969

This chapter starts with the 1968 riots which pretty much destroyed much of 9th and 7th Street in Shaw. Yes, other neighborhoods experienced damage too, but we’re focusing on Shaw. The damage lasted 30 years. Whatever plans for the Shaw School Urban Renewal Area took on a new spirit after the riots and redoing Dunbar was part of it.

There were pre-riot plans for the Dunbar facility. There was a modernization plan to make it larger than Eastern High School. After the riot the School Board decided the building needed to be torn down.

As the 1970s approach Dunbar was a completely different school. Gone were the high standards and expectations of earlier years. There was a mix and range of students. And there were drug dealers around the neighborhood.

This chapter gives some detail about the prison like structure that loomed on Square 554 for 30 years. The new Dunbar Senior High School would be modern. It had open classrooms. I’m sure that idea looked great on paper.

Of course Dunbar alumni fought the good fight and tried to save the original 1916 building. Senator Brooke (mentioned in the previous chapter) lent his support for saving the old building. Apparently the building was recognized as an historic landmark. The alumni even took the city to court in 1977. June 2, 1977 the city began to knock down the old Dunbar building.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 10 Bolling, NOT Brown

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.

Most are familiar with Brown v. Board of Education. It is the US Supreme Court case cited and credited with desegregating American schools. What most don’t realize (because history seems to be a drive by affair where you briefly are told of a topic and then immediately run off to the next in the chronology) that Brown v. Board was made of 5 cases, a DC case being one of them. That DC case was Bolling v. Sharpe.

The note that a M St/Dunbar graduate, Charles Houston, was on the legal team seems unimportant. What the chapter does is give a sense of what public education was like for African American students in the 1950s. The previous chapters gave it for the 1940s and earlier. Both Dunbar and Armstrong were overcrowded in 1948, as well as the other Black high schools in the city.

Armstrong High School March 1942
Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress)- Armstrong High 1942.

May 17, 1954 the US Supreme Court made their decision on Brown v. Board and that year the District began a slow roll to desegregate starting at the elementary level. Of course, there was fighting. At least in the book, adults in positions of influence fighting about how the desegregation was going and planned.

I’m going to detour from the book to make a note. In the neighborhood had a smattering of white families in the 1950 census and by 1960, they’re gone. Doing the WSIC 1950 sell off series, I know why. It wasn’t because of school desegregation that had the families moving out. It was that those households were renters and their landlord WSIC decided to sell, specifically to Black buyers. Just looking at the census demographics and knowing about desegregation, it’s no great leap to assume that the change was due to the schools. Okay, back to the book.

“By 1957, Superintendent Hobart Corning declared, “Desegregation id complete.” But he then added this: “Desegregation is the moving about of people and things, Integration is a much longer process depending the creation of a community.”” So what does this mean for Dunbar, a school dedicated to Black academic excellence? Well it was the beginning of the end of that tradition and that culture.

Those fighting hard for desegregation weren’t thinking about Dunbar and what would come of its teachers and prospective students.  Dunbar was on its way to becoming just a neighborhood school.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 2 Teaching to Teach

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.

Okay I’ll make this quick. This starts in the mid 19th century and is about Myrtilla Miner, founder of the Normal School for Colored Girls, then after her death, called the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, then the Miner Normal School, then the Miner Teacher College.

Since this has nothing to do with Truxton Circle, I’m skipping this chapter.

1920 to 1930- White to Black- 1741 New Jersey Avenue

1700 Block NJ Ave NW, 1930. Brown= AfAm residents; White= No data

In this series of looking at the odd numbered side of the 1700 block of New Jersey Ave NW from 1920 to 1930, I decided to look at the other end of the block. The change from 1920 to 1930 for most of the block was from white renters to black home owners. However, in the case of 1741 New Jersey Ave NW, which no longer exists as a house, but part of the parking of a corner gas station, there was no Black resident recorded for the 1930 census.

But then again, the 1930 census had some house number errors, so maybe there was someone there.

The Renters- The Sussans

First we’ll look at the white renters who lived at 1741 NJ Ave NW in 1920. Look back to 1910, see where they were or learn more about them. Then where they were in 1930. The reason why they vacated is simple, their homes were sold to M. Harvey Chiswell, who then sold the row of homes to African American buyers. They didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

In the 1920 census, the recorded tenants were the Sussan family. It was headed by a 41 year old baker Charles Sussan, and his wife Lillian. They lived with their three children Charles Jr. (18 yo) (1901-1968); Emily (16); Frank (7)(1912-1987) and Charles’ sister Elizabeth (58 y.o.). Ten years prior the family was living at 612 L St with Charles Sr. working as a baker and Lillian as a dressmaker. They lived with their sons and Lillian’s mother Willey Burgess (1858-1933).

After they left New Jersey Ave the family had moved to Arlington, VA by the 1930 census. Charles Sr. had remained a baker, and lived in the home he owned with his wife and their two sons. Daughter Emily Elizabeth had married and was living with her in-laws at 3110 Connecticut Ave NW.  That year Emily would give birth to daughter Hazel Louise Macwilliams (later Brown).

The Owners- The McCalisters

From previous work, we discovered the row of homes on the 1700 odd numbered block of NJ Ave NW were purchased, repaired for sale to African American home owners in Fall and Winter of 1920. 1741 New Jersey Ave NW doesn’t exist, but we can find lot # 30 on a Baist map from the time period.

The first document is a 1923 trust (loan doc) between Mr. and Mrs. James I.(18721952) and Lulu (nee Phifer) McCalister and trustees Jesse H. Mitchell and William H. Cowan for $151.89. A November 1923 release document between the Mitchells and W. Wallace Chiswell and Harry A. Kite points to a September 30, 1920 loan. M. (Mary) Harvey Chiswell and W. Wallace Chiswell were part of the operation to sell specifically to African Americans.

1923 was a very busy year as it was also the year James and Samuel McCalister sold 1741 to James M. Woodward, who a few months later sold it to  A. Lynn McDowell. In 1925, A. Lynn McDowell, his wife Elizabeth C. and a Julian N. McDowell sold the house to John G. Walker. A little less than a month later Walker sold the property to Mary Hummel. Sometime between 1928 and 1932 the ownership changed to where Conners & Fosters Inc took control of it.

So who were these people? The McCalisters were an African American couple who in 1924 lived at 1509 5th St NW. Prior to that for the 1920 census they were renting 345 Elm St NW. I think that was in LeDroit Park. Mr. McCalister was recorded as a laborer working for the Government Printing Office. I was able to confirm his federal employment by searching the 1919 Official Register of the United States (p.811) to find he was paid 35 cents an hour. In 1930 the McCalisters lived separately. Lulu lived at 946 T St NW, supporting herself as a chiropractor. James was not located for that year. But for 1940 he was a resident at the US Soldier’s Home and Lulu can’t be found. They were back together for the 1950 census living on H St with a lodger. James died in 1952 and is buried at Arlington Cemetery.

Black History Month 2024: First Class- Ch. 1 It Is What It Is

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 Introduction hinted at the Dunbar High School (DHS) band, chapter one goes into more detail.

It starts in 2004 when music educator Rodney Chambers discovered DHS didn’t have a band director and managed to get a paid job at the school. From there he discovered all sorts of problems that most inner city Black schools experienced. DHS’ grand past had little relationship to its present. Despite that, he managed to grow and improve the band program.

The path to the 2009 Obama inauguration was long. DHS was one of over a thousand applications. Chambers did not advertise that he’d applied for the chance for his band to march. On the day of the parade there were problems. Some kids went missing.

At this point I will take a break from the book to remember the day before. The band was practicing all over the neighborhood. It was a real treat to see the band marching down my street. I took pictures.

Okay, back to the book.

After the inaugural parade there were comments on a Youtube video as well as other negative feedback regarding their performance. The dance team was a little too spicy.

The point of the first chapter was to show where the school was in the late aughts. The next chapter goes back in time to the beginning, where academics were key and excellence was something to be achieved.