Historic Dunbar High School Remembers Past, Looks To Future (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Historic Dunbar High School Remembers Past, Looks to Future

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We'll head now to another D.C. school that's sporting a new look on this first week of classes, Dunbar High School, whose new state-of-the-art building features interactive white boards, a sparkling auditorium and top-of-the-line science labs. Dunbar was the first public school for black students in the country. And its alumni include the Army's first black general and America's first black federal judge.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:23
But that history has faded over the years, as D.C. public schools, like Dunbar, have become better known for dysfunction, than for achievement. Michael Martinez recently sought out some of Dunbar's best known graduates and its current principal to explore how the school's history is likely to shape its future.

MR. MICHAEL MARTINEZ

00:00:43
When members of the Dunbar Marching Band filed into their new high school's ribbon cutting this month, the strutted past rows and rows of men and women who graduated from the same school decades ago. Some of them, like the mayor who held court on the auditorium stage, are living, breathing pieces of the history the school wants to revive.

MR. MICHAEL MARTINEZ

00:01:13
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray graduated in 1959, from what one can say was very much the old Dunbar High School. The school was housed in a different building back then, and it carried an academic reputation known far and wide. A reputation made by alumni like those who've appeared on U.S. postage stamps. And like the renowned surgeon Charles Drew, and the father of African American History Month, Carter G. Woodson.

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY

00:01:35
I don't know the data, but I'll bet you there's not 10 percent of other high schools in America that have even two of its graduates on postage stamps. And Dunbar, eight graduates on postage stamps, ladies and gentlemen.

MARTINEZ

00:01:50
But Dunbar's current reputation more closely resembles the down-trodden building the school just moved out of, which replaced the historic Dunbar in the '70s. Principal Stephen Jackson didn't mince words about the old building while giving a tour of the new one, which sits on the same city block.

MR. STEPHEN JACKSON

00:02:03
Yeah, that's the old building. It just looks scary, right?

MARTINEZ

00:02:12
Jackson's 96-year-old great aunt graduated from Dunbar in the '30s. He's keenly aware that the history of the original Dunbar building and its predecessor, M Street High School, didn't exactly follow the school into the Dunbar II building on New Jersey Avenue.

JACKSON

00:02:26
But, actually, Dunbar's always been known for its great academics. But that actually changed during the 1955, after they made the decision -- after the 1954 decision to make this school a neighborhood school, you know. And when they made it a neighborhood school they didn't have the type of autonomy they had before then.

MARTINEZ

00:02:46
The 1954 decision he's talking about is the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. After the ruling, Dunbar went from a magnet-type of school to a neighborhood school, and the transition came with growing pains.

MS. ALISON STEWART

00:03:02
One Dunbar graduate said, you know, the rallying cry had been integration, integration, integration, and nobody thought about what would happen to Dunbar.

MARTINEZ

00:03:10
That's journalist Alison Stewart, speaking recently on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Stewart's parents attended Dunbar, during segregation. The instruction was first rate, but her father would pass multiple schools every morning, just to get to the one he was allowed to attend.

STEWART

00:03:23
So there's this academically rigorous high school, where students can speak two and three languages and their teachers have Ph.D.'s and masters, 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.

MARTINEZ

00:03:47
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was a student at Dunbar in 1954 when the Brown v. Board decision was announced. She said discrimination in the world of higher education was partially responsible for the bounty of Ph.D. level instructors who taught at the Dunbar of her time. Many of whom cried tears of joy when they heard the news from the Supreme Court.

MS. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON

00:04:07
Our teachers consisted of a very unusual group of people. Some of them had Ph.D.'s, but at a time when African Americans were not welcome in any but HBCUs, those leftover Ph.D.'s 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. It was an extraordinary day to be sitting in any segregated classroom, but especially at Dunbar High School.

MARTINEZ

00:04:58
The new Dunbar building attempts to bridge the school's past with its future. it includes plaques that honor notable alumni and a museum on the first floor, celebrating the achievements of its graduates. Jackson, the principal, still familiarizing himself with some of those museum exhibits, but he says it's just as significant that some of the plaques and markers have been left blank.

JACKSON

00:05:18
So when students come in -- we told students, do you see that empty marker on the floor? And they said, yes. I said, "That can be you one day."

MARTINEZ

00:05:28
At the ribbon cutting, Vincent Gray didn't suggest there was a magic formula for recreating Dunbar's past academic glory in its new building, but he did offer inspiration from words written by the poet the school is named after.

GRAY

00:05:40
And let's remember those famous words of Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Keep a pluggin' away."

MARTINEZ

00:05:48
I'm Michael Martinez.

SHEIR

00:05:52
If you want to check out Dunbar's new digs, you can watch a video on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:06:12
Time for a break, but when we get back, why more and more Washingtonians seem to be getting bit by the theater bug.

MS. TAYLOR PAYNE

00:06:19
I really feel that once I graduate from the conservatory, I will always be able to use the skills that I have been taught here, always.

SHEIR

00:06:26
That's coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

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00:06:31
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