First Class

The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School

by Alison Stewart and Melissa Harris-perry

First Class

Hardcover, 336 pages, Lawrence Hill Books, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

By the 1950s, Dunbar High School, the first US high school for African Americans, was sending 80 percent of its students to college. Today, as with too many troubled urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students struggle with reading and math. The school's rise, fall, and path toward resurgence is told in this account.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: First Class

It became tradition to usher incoming students into the auditorium on the first day of classes for a formal welcome to Dunbar High School. The returning upperclassmen took their place in the balcony to get a good vantage point to check out the newbies. The freshmen arrived having heard rumors of initiations — nothing too evil, just upperclassmen giving the young ones wrong directions and a verbal lick here and there. As one young boy scribbled in his yearbook, "It will only be a few weeks of torture, but next year we will be the torturers."

Few qualifications determined who could attend Dunbar: a student had to live in the District, could not have a communicable disease, and had to pass the eighth-grade exit exam. In order to enroll from outside the District, students had to pass a high school entrance exam. It was a fairly democratic process, but the democracy ended at the door of Dunbar. Inside Dunbar, the ground rules and expectations were laid out the first day. Principal Walter Smith, who led Dunbar for twenty-two years, was known to look over his little round glasses, which were as smooth and round as his pate, as he spoke. He laid down the law the first week.

The contribution which DUNBAR will make to your development will be in furthering your progress along the lines already started, and aid in the opening up of new fields for new powers and aspirations which will be awakened with the coming years. Here you will learn to live in accord with one another in a large community, doing your part well that all may be well. You will learn to know that the good leader is he who first was a good follower. You will learn that the good of all is the highest good, superior to the good of one or a few. Happy will you be if you seek always to do your part, great or small, in the best way you can. You will be trained in much that the world counts as worthwhile. Yours will meet with many of the world's best minds, and receive inspiration and growth by contact. If you have improved your opportunities while here, while here you will go forth strengthened in mind, morals, and body, well prepared to do that part of the world's work which will be your share.

As for the students transferring in, part of the surge of Great Migration and those who moved expressly to DC to take advantage of Dunbar, the school administration had this advice:

There are many things which will seem strange to you here at Dunbar ... May you find here the greatest aid and encouragement in your efforts and may you know the happiness that comes from doing your best in your lessons and in your behavior ... You must have a desire to live up to the highest and best ideals of Dunbar scholarship and deportment.

The message was that Dunbar stood for something. Dunbar proved that Negroes were able to do anything that anybody else could do, and do it as well or better.

Every moment of the first school day was choreographed. Students were given instructions on exactly how to exit the auditorium. Students were to go through the doors immediately, emptying seats from the rear three rows at a time (not two — three!), keep to the right in the halls, and move rapidly. Students were instructed to walk along halls and up and down stairs two abreast at all times (not three — two!), and students were not to walk arm in arm or with arms around one another. Students were not to loiter, but were not to rush either. Instead, they were instructed to keep a "military cadence."

The students who could afford to and didn't have to work every day after school were encouraged to join clubs. There was the glee club and the debating society. There were academic clubs, such as the biological club, which was devoted to nature and the sciences. There were social clubs like the Fleur De Lis Club, established in 1904, which focused on literary works and school spirit. The Rex Club — rex meaning "king" in Latin — was a young men's group devoted to being manly. The club soon took on the job of helping to patrol the halls and keep the overcrowded facility in order.

And there were sports. The fairly good-sized football and basketball teams went by the moniker the Poets, a name that seemed especially unfortunate when one considered that their main rivals were called the Generals. Students were encouraged to cheer on their players, and even some of their team-spirit chants were about academic prowess.

It's D-U-N-B-A-R H-I-G-H High!

It used to be so hard to spell

It almost made me cry

But since I came to Dunbar High

It's just like pumpkin pie

It's D-U-N-B-A-R H-I-G-H High!

First and foremost, Dunbar was about academic rigor. The all-classical pedagogy focused on English, mathematics, the sciences, ancient history, Negro history, military drill, physical education, music, drawing, domestic science, Latin, Spanish, French, and German.

At one point, the Dunbar workload was so heavy the board of education had to get involved after a parent appealed to the members to do something. During an investigation, one student reported that she woke up at 5:00 am every day just to finish the work. One student had begged his teacher not to assign a test because he had to answer 150 questions for another class. The teachers agreed to decrease the workload to one hour per night for each major subject.

The school's difficulty was causing a serious attrition rate in the mid-1920s. Dunbar began losing students for three reasons. Most were students who failed out, followed by students who transferred to technical schools, and then students who had to leave in order to work. The Dunbar position was a bit unforgiving. In a detailed report presented to the principal, the head of the history and English department reported that "thirty-seven left the first semester, the majority of these being self-supporting pupils who lacked the courage and finance to continue the work."

It was clear that boys left school more easily and earlier than girls. Often they were offered jobs, but the boys would eventually return. The girls stayed in school as long as possible because it was a social marker to make it through Dunbar. As the author of the report, Professor Otelia Cromwell, wrote, "Often only a brick wall of insurmountable Ds makes a girl stop."

The report suggested the failure rates were the result of a change in the student population. By the 1920s, ten times as many students enrolled in high school than in the 1890s. The Dunbar faculty felt that students who belonged in vocational schools, business schools, or possibly in the job market were all coming to Dunbar — and perhaps they shouldn't. Cromwell wrote, "The pupils entering the high school are not as selective a group as they were thirty years ago. The schools universally are going deeper down the scale socially, economically, and also intellectually."

The solution was early intervention during the first year. Dunbar would track students by ability groups to cater to their needs, identify students who perhaps should transfer to vocational schools, and then facilitate that transition. In the 1920s a new Negro business high school, Cardozo, opened in the old Central High School building, so students who wanted secretarial or business skills could go there. Phelps was a vocational school for those seeking specific training. And for those who needed to get jobs, the new Dunbar model was to keep them in school until they were academically competent enough to stand a chance in the world. Right or wrong, the faculty felt the way to preserve Dunbar was to 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 in Adversity, Equal in Prosperity). The words formed a halo around a woman in a robe with a book on her lap and it was embossed on every yearbook. New students were informed that to be at Dunbar they had to have "a serious purpose to succeed." To achieve those ends, students were counseled about what to eat and wear and how to behave. All students were given a small handbook and asked to read it and consult it regularly. The handbook went far beyond the classroom. It would make a libertarian uncomfortable. The student handbook instructed students not to gossip and to have good manners. It suggested sleeping eight hours a day "with the windows open." There were even guidelines on how to pick friends: "Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportment or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions."

The way the administration saw it, when a student chose to come to Dunbar, and if a student was lucky enough to stay there, he or she was a representative of Dunbar wherever that student went. Two pages of the student handbook were devoted to how to act in public.

On walking on the street:

Avoid loud talking, boisterous laughter or familiar actions. If you desire to converse with a friend walk with her a little way but don't loiter.

Leave the street corners for traffic.

For conduct at social affairs, students were told to:

Always greet your hosts and hostesses upon entering the hall. If the function is a dance remember the following suggestions:

Boys ask the girls to dance.

Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat. Do not leave her in the middle of the floor.

Girls, remove all wraps before dancing.

Do not accept an invitation to dance with anyone with whom you are not acquainted.

Gum chewing is in bad taste. Avoid it.

Some of the advice was practical and had to do with safety. Racial tensions were high in Washington following World War I. There had been riots in the summer of 1919. Negro citizens had been beaten by mobs of whites egged on by incendiary headlines about colored marauders. The Ku Klux Klan marched right down Pennsylvania Avenue on a spring day in 1925. The handbook advised students who rode streetcars, which were integrated, to speak in soft tones, not to yell, and to move quickly and quietly to their seats. The advice was as much about survival as manners.

From First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart. Copyright 2013 by Alison Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Lawrence Hill Books.

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