WAMU 88.5 : Metro Connection

Historic Dunbar High School Remembers Past, Looks to Future

Play associated audio
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

NPR

Tampa Hosts Bollywood's Biggest Stars At Annual Awards Show

India's Bollywood film industry is increasingly reaching a world-wide audience. To highlight the international appeal, the industry holds its annual awards ceremony every year outside of India.
NPR

Got My Goat? Vermont Farms Put Fresh Meat On Refugee Tables

Americans don't eat much barbecued goat, but the meat is a mainstay in many African, Asian and Caribbean diets. In Vermont, farmers raise for refugees and immigrants, with hopes to mainstream it.
WAMU 88.5

On National Mall, Native Americans Protest Keystone XL Pipeline

Native Americans from across the country are visiting Washington this week to protest the construction of a controversial pipeline in the Midwest.
NPR

Life Outside The Fast Lane: Startups Wary Of Web Traffic Plan

The Federal Communications Commission's proposal would let Web companies pay for faster access. But entrepreneurs, like Reddit's co-founder, are wondering how they would have fared with such rules.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.