Anita F. Allen, former president of D.C. school board, dies at 87

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Anita F. Allen worked for the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education began operating as an independent agency in 1980. Before that, she worked for the Office of Education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.


Anita F. Allen exits a vehicle before speaking to a group of supporters in Washington on Nov. 1, 1971. (Tom Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 12, 2013

Anita F. Allen, who was the president of the D.C. school board in the early 1970s and who lost her seat in 1971 to Marion S. Barry in his first run for elective office, died Feb. 7 at Collington Life Care Community in Mitchellville. She was 87 and had kidney disease, her son George A. Ferguson III said.

Mrs. Allen was a District-born official with the U.S. Office of Education when she was appointed to the school board in 1967 by a panel of judges, before the era of D.C. home rule. In 1968, during the first election for a popularly elected governing body in District history, Mrs. Allen was the top vote-getter for an at-large seat on the school board.

In 1970 and 1971, Mrs. Allen was elected to two one-year terms as school board president. She continued to hold down her full-time job at the Office of Education while serving on the school board.

“I don’t have all the answers,” she told The Washington Post in 1970, “but I do know where we should look — to the classroom and at what the children are learning there.”

Then as now, the D.C. schools faced a familiar list of problems, including poor achievement, deteriorating facilities, racial discord and long-running disputes among the school board, the superintendent and residents.

Mrs. Allen noted that she was considered a “flaming liberal” when she was named to the board, but she was branded a “conservative” by a new generation of activists during a time of rapid political change in the District.

Citing vandalism, theft and drug sales around city schools, Mrs. Allen called for increased police patrols. She opposed declaring a school holiday for the birthday of Malcolm X, saying, “I don’t think we should memorialize separatism.”

Mrs. Allen was soon subjected to taunts at school board meetings, as groups of high school hecklers shouted, “Hey, Mrs. Allen, are you black?”

“There are some people who hate for one reason or another,” Mrs. Allen told The Post. “They’ve said, ‘We’re going to put a brick through your window,’ and they make threatening phone calls at night.”

In 1971, she was challenged by Barry in his first electoral campaign. He called Mrs. Allen a fixture of the old guard, the source of bickering and indecisiveness on the school board.

During the campaign, Mrs. Allen charged that Barry was seeking the unpaid school board seat as “some sort of political office, a steppingstone to somewhere.”

She claimed that he and his supporters “are not interested in the public schools, but in control of the city and the local Democratic Party.” Barry went on to serve four terms as mayor and is a current member of the D.C. Council.

After a decisive loss, Mrs. Allen resigned her seat two months early and never ran political office again.

Anita Geraldine Ford was born Feb. 13, 1925, in Washington and grew up in Anacostia. Her father was a government laborer, her mother a file clerk.

She was valedictorian of the 1941 class at the old Armstrong High School and won a four-year scholarship to Howard University, graduating summa cum laude in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She received a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1946 and a doctorate in education in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Early in her career, Mrs. Allen taught at Howard and was a cataloguer at the Library of Congress before working as a management analyst with the Department of the Army for several years. She later taught report writing to federal employees at the General Services Administration.

In 1965, she joined the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s education office, where she managed federal funds for public schools and grants to historically black colleges. She retired in 1981.

She was a member of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Her marriages to George A. Ferguson Jr. and the Rev. Willie B. Allen ended in divorce.

Survivors include two sons from her first marriage, George A. Ferguson III of Falls Church and Stephen F. Ferguson of Surprise, Ariz.; a brother, Claude A. Ford, the former acting president of the University of the District of Columbia, of Silver Spring; two granddaughters; and six grandsons.

“I am willing to stand up and be counted,” Mrs. Allen said in 1970, describing her leadership during turbulent times. “I’m not wishy-washy. I don’t kid people or mislead them.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.