'First Class' by Alison Stewart
'First Class' by Alison Stewart. (Photo by Michael Young)

When acclaimed journalist and author Alison Stewart learned that her parents had graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., she knew their story pulsed with the greater history of African-Americans seeking to successfully navigate a segregated America.

“Dunbar had a life story, a heartbeat, and a reason for living,” Stewart told theGrio. “Teachers really instilled the idea, ‘don’t give up.’ The faculty was in the kids’ business. They talked to the neighborhood. They talked to the church. They had no problem calling a parent saying, ‘Your kid is not in class.’ Going to Dunbar meant you were part of something.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School — also known as Dunbar High — was America’s first black public high school. Founded in 1870, Dunbar High has produced many of the nation’s pioneering black “firsts,” African-Americans who broke through barriers to become the first people of African descent to achieve in their fields — much like the poet after whom the school is named. Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first black poets to receive national acclaim.

Stewart chronicles this school’s unique past in her new book, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. By interviewing Dunbar graduates ranging from as far back as the ’30s, in addition to plumbing yearbooks and other source materials, Stewart reveals the history of academic excellence that thrived in Dunbar’s classrooms.

Dunbar High’s esteemed list of graduates includes: Benjamin Davis, the first black general in the army; Robert Weaver, the first black presidential cabinet member; Wesley Brown, the first black naval academy graduate; Norma Johnson, the first black woman to preside as a judge in the federal courts; Eva Dykes, the first black woman to earn a doctoral degree, and the third to receive a doctorate, or PhD; Edward Brooke, the first black politician popularly elected to the U.S. Senate; Billy Taylor, famed jazz musician; Elizabeth Catlett, one of the first blacks to achieve success in the fine arts; and, Charles Hamilton Houston, a leading black lawyer in the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.

And that is just to name a few.

On the Melissa Harris-Perry show, Alison Stewart discusses Dunbar High.

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The history of Dunbar High

Despite the inequalities of segregation that were entrenched in the D.C. public school system, as the very first public high school for blacks, for some time Dunbar stood alone as a gateway towards opportunity.

Dunbar High emerged from humble beginnings in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. before its first edifice was erected in 1916. It had what many called a beautiful, “collegiate-looking” exterior.

Black families from different socioeconomic strata, many of whom had migrated from the South during the Great Migration, flocked to D.C. just so their children could attend Dunbar High.

Inequality impacts first black schools

“You still see the legacy of slavery in parts of the D.C. school system,” Stewart said of these incipient moments. “Some of these kids coming up from the South had grandparents, or great-grandparents, for whom it was illegal to teach and read, and they didn’t have a long history of education in their family. By the time legalized desegregation happened, you had a couple of generations that had been severely underserved by the public school system.”

Systematic inequality in D.C. public schools can be traced to the year Dunbar High was founded. Starting in the 1870s, the D.C. Board of Education reorganized the school system and severely underfunded black schools. According to the D.C. Board of Education Report from 1910, funding for black schools should have been proportional to the number of African-American children in the District. When more African-American families migrated from the South, funding allocations did not account for the surge in African-American students.

Despite this, according to Stewart, Dunbar High thrived on rich human capital and well-educated teachers. Dunbar alumni returned to teach after gaining prestigious graduate degrees, and imbued student morale with “race pride.”