After three-quarters of a century, the song they sang during their high school years is still etched strongly in their minds:
God bless thee,
thy radiant star.
Like the sun morning,
Some sat in wheelchairs as they belted out the lyrics. Others were planted in their seats with their canes nearby as the crowd unexpectedly began singing the school song during a recent luncheon for Dunbar High School’s 75th reunion.
About 200 students graduated from the country’s first black high school in 1936, and every year since 1956 they have marked the occasion.
Twenty classmates and more than 100 friends and family members gathered at Pier 7 Restaurant in Southwest Washington last week. The room was filled with exhibits of programs, keepsakes, and black-and-white photos of former teachers and students.
“One girl said she had all of her family with her because she wanted them to see what happened over 75 years,” said Evelyn Gray, 90, of the District, who organized this year’s reunion.
The gathering was also a chance for families to hear about what their lives were like in high school. According to historians, Dunbar students excelled because of the standards that were set by principals and teachers. One of the early principals of the school was the first black man to graduate from Harvard. The school, which offered teaching opportunities for black professionals when other schools would not, had three teachers with doctoral degrees in the 1920s.
The reunions started more than half a century ago as a way to maintain friendships. But Gray said the students later used the events to collect scholarship money for Dunbar students who planned to go to college and to recognize the vast accomplishments of their former classmates.
For example, when Sen. Edward W. Brooke III, the first black person to be elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate, wrote in a book that the reunion was used as an opportunity to hear about his writings.
The same was done for Adelaide Cromwell, a professor emeritus at Boston University, who had written a book examining Boston’s black upper class from 1750 to 1950.
“This was African American history told through the mouths of those who experienced it,” said Betty Hewlett, who attended last week’s event in memory of her mother, Marjorie Phillips Hewlett, who died five years ago.
“I don’t think they even realize how special they are,” said Hewlett, a lawyer in Prince George’s County. “They are nothing short of amazing.”
Yvonne M. Simkins, 90, of Annapolis said one of the results of segregation was the solid camaraderie that developed.
“I formed friendships that last forever,” said Simkins, who later graduated from Howard University.
Gray said she remembers her group of friends walking to Dunbar, passing numerous white schools along the way. “Someone would join in at each block,” she said.
At school, there was no playing around. Expectations were high, and the students exceeded them, the students said.
Teachers made sure students flourished in subjects that interested them, whether it was Latin, French or Spanish. Gray loved Spanish.
Gray’s mother was a homemaker who did laundry work for a local family, and her father was with the Merchant Marines.
“My family was like any other — they just wanted their children to do well,” she said.
Gray went to Miner Teachers College, then to Howard School of Divinity. After she realized she needed to make some money, she became a teacher in a one-room school in Virginia. She said she tried to institute some of the standards she learned at Dunbar.
Brooke and Cromwell were unable to attend last week, but others talked about the prestigious education they received at Dunbar and how it prepared them for college and careers as teachers, doctors and lawyers during segregation.
The school began in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in the basement of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. The name was later changed to M Street High School and then to Dunbar in honor of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
“It was a very renowned high school, because we had well-educated teachers,” Simkins said.
She said the 75th reunion was bittersweet for her as she and her classmates continue to show the signs of aging.
“Otherwise we were just all happy to be together one more time,” Simkins said.