Alison Stewart grew up hearing her parents talk about their experiences at D.C.’s Dunbar High School, which more than sixty years after they graduated, will welcome students back to school Monday in a gleaming, new building.
A journalist who has worked at MTV and PBS, Stewart was intrigued by the stories of a school that offered African-Americans a top-notch education at the height of segregation. In “First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School,” she chronicles the school’s past and looks at what its future may hold.
What made you want to write about Dunbar?
My mom and dad had always told me about Dunbar … and how their teachers had master’s degrees and Ph.D.s and, of course, I was surprised to realize that it was segregated. I thought to myself, the people who know that history are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and if someone doesn’t write this down, it was in danger of being lost.
But the book is much more than a family history.
The big-picture reason [I wrote the book] is I really get upset when I hear young black men and women talk about “education is a white thing” and “you talk white” and that kind of stuff. A lot of them don’t even know the history of this high school.
I just want young black men and women to know: Yeah, it is part of your history, [the striving for education] is part of black history, part of American history.
I think I expected this book to be a look at a little piece of D.C. history, but actually, it’s much more a narrative that looks at race in America through the lens of Dunbar.
D.C. education is so interesting and so layered that I had to be really disciplined about staying on the Dunbar story. I realized that if I stayed on that story, the broader themes would be clearer than if I went down so many different alleyways.
How does Dunbar’s story tie into debates about the American public school system today?
So many of our societal ills and so many of the socioeconomic issues that face the country, I think, show up in our schools — and public schools specifically.
One of the things that I thought was interesting during the [former D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Michelle] Rhee years was there was so much talk about education reform, and I thought, “You know you have a blueprint of how it can work right in your own town.” And [Dunbar] worked under the worst circumstances — under legalized segregation and difficulty getting funding and overcrowding and all these things we talk about [today] — Dunbar still succeeded.
What do you think Dunbar’s legacy is?
I think its legacy is about education and race pride and trying to show the world that black kids could do as well, if not better, if given a chance. It’s so funny for us to think [that] people then really thought black people were inferior. They really thought they couldn’t learn.
I didn’t realize that Mayor Vincent C. Gray was such a fan of Dunbar.
Oh my God, he’s like the biggest Dunbar booster ever. He will talk to anybody, any time about Dunbar. He’s another one that will tell you that he grew up in very humble means and how important Dunbar was in instilling in him the idea that he could do anything.
Have alumni been supportive of the book?
The alumni I spoke to are so glad to have this story told because most of them really believe in education. They express such worry and concern about kids in the public school systems now.
The motto of the school is “Keep a-pluggin’ away,” from the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, and [alumni] have that sense of keep going, keep going, keep trying to make it better, don’t let anybody get in your way. I get a sense from a lot of them that they want that message to get to kids.
Why do you think it’s important for people to know this story?
I’m of a certain age. And in school, if you learned any black history, you learned slavery, 1954, 1968, Martin Luther King. That was it until Barack Obama showed up, right?
So between the 1850s and 1960s, what were black Americans doing exactly? There’s this huge void in what we teach kids about black history. And I think if you were black and you knew about this school and you knew about all these people, that could open doors in your mind, that could open your mind to opportunities.