Rose-Colored Views of an All-Black School

By Brian Gilmore
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Last week, students from Washington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School headed back to a school that hasn't changed in more than a century, at least in one way: Nearly all its students are black.

According to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, this can be a good thing. In June, when the court issued a ruling forbidding school districts to use race-specific plans to diversify schools, Thomas pointed to Dunbar as proof that African American students can excel in racially isolated environments. "In the period 1918-1923," he wrote, Dunbar was a "prominent example" of an "exemplary black school."

I'm not sure which is more surprising: to find Thomas on the same page as black separatists -- a part of the black community he's usually at odds with -- or to see the lone black justice praising an elite club that probably wouldn't have had him as a member. For even in its glory days as a single-race school of high achievers, Dunbar wasn't free from discrimination. It was simply discrimination of a different kind.

The late Howard Shorter was one proud Dunbar graduate, and he loved to tell stories about the grand old days of black Washington, when folks drove big cars along U Street, dressed to the nines, called shots, made big deals -- all on their own turf.

"Integration ruined everything," he would often grumble to me when we worked together at a public interest law firm in the late 1990s.

But Shorter, like Thomas, was invoking the Dunbar High of yesteryear, the storied and celebrated high school my mother graduated from in the 1940s, the school that produced countless African American luminaries during the awful days of Jim Crow.

This was the near-mythical place depicted in the documentary "Duke Ellington's Washington," a school where blacks outscored their white counterparts on standardized tests. In 1900, when it was known as the M Street High School -- the name changed to Dunbar in 1916 -- African Americans from other parts of the East Coast moved to Washington so their children could attend the school. Ellington himself noted in his autobiography that "the proud Negroes of Washington" protested school integration plans because they didn't want white students to bring them down.

Dunbar graduates often went on to earn degrees from Ivy League colleges. Several made history. Charles R. Drew, who graduated in 1922, pioneered advances in the use of blood plasma. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. attended Dunbar in the 1890s and became the first black Army general; Sterling A. Brown, who graduated in 1918, went on to a career as a noted poet and English professor. Anna J. Cooper, a leading feminist scholar, was a principal of the high school, and the celebrated Harlem Renaissance novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset taught there. The school also boasted a faculty full of teachers with doctorates.

When I told my mother about Thomas's mention of Dunbar in the June decision, she, too, recalled a place she called "ours" and a time when there was a sense of community everywhere, when your teachers walked to school beside you because they lived in the same segregated neighborhood where your school, your doctor and everything else was located. My mother also says it never dawned on her that black students would integrate with whites in their schools because they were receiving a great education at Dunbar, which "was all they knew."

But as the award-winning poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, who graduated from Dunbar in 1982, noted, even if there were opportunities for blacks at his alma mater, it didn't mean that everyone was welcome. "The halls were then and are still today full of photographs of graduating classes full of light-skinned blacks," he said.

The black elite of the period enforced a well-known color caste system, according to Audrey Elisa Kerr, author of "The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism, and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington DC."

Kerr quotes former Dunbar students as describing light-skinned blacks as "privileged." "The social experience of the 'fairest' of Dunbar students was marked by their ability to 'pass' [for white] in and around Washington D.C. after school," she writes.

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