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Historic Dunbar High School Remembers Past, Looks to Future

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Dunbar High School was founded in 1870 as the nation's first public high school for black students. An existing building for the school was built in the mid-1970s, but had few windows and no walls separating classrooms from each other.
Martin Austermuhle
Dunbar High School was founded in 1870 as the nation's first public high school for black students. An existing building for the school was built in the mid-1970s, but had few windows and no walls separating classrooms from each other.

The District's Dunbar High School opened for classes this week in a brand new, state-of-the art building, complete with a sparkling auditorium, interactive white boards and top of the line science labs. But the new Dunbar is also designed to teach students lessons about one very specific subject: history. Dunbar was the first public school for black students in the U.S, and its alumni include America's first black federal judge and the Army's first black general.

Some of that history has faded over the years, as D.C. public schools like Dunbar have become better known for dysfunction than for achievement. The new building, which features a museum and plaques commemorating notable alumni, seeks to revive it.

"I'm so glad that the history of the school is physically built into the building so that it cannot be lost," journalist Alison Stewart recently said on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Both of her parents attended Dunbar, when it was still a segregated school. "That is, I think, so important, and I'm paraphrasing here, but I think it was Marcus Garvey who said, 'a culture in ethnicity that doesn't know its history is like a tree without its roots.' And I think it's so important — you can't relive the past — you cannot recreate Dunbar, but you can be inspired by its history, the fight for it, the fight for it to stay being a good school, the excellence and the extraordinary achievements of its graduates."

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray graduated from Dunbar in 1959. At the school's ribbon cutting earlier this month, he boasted about the eight Dunbar alumni who've been featured on U.S. postage stamps -- a group that includes the physician Charles Drew and historian Carter G. Woodson.

"I don't know the data, but I bet you there's not 10 percent of other high schools in America that have even two of its graduates on postage stamps," Gray said in his remarks.

Principal Stephen Jackson knows the history of Dunbar quite well — his great aunt graduated from the school in the 1930s, when it was an academic powerhouse. He said it was particularly important that some of the plaques and markers in the new building were left blank to honor future students.

"We told students: 'You see that marker on the floor? That can be you one day,'" Jackson said.


[Music: "School Days" by Santo & Johnny from Sleepwalk: The Very Best Of]

Photos: Dunbar High School

Photos courtesy of Martin Austermule


Related Video: Legacy of notable alumni at Dunbar High School

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