Today, they speak proudly of the many "first black" prizewinners and officeholders among them. They relish the litany of their classmates' achievements and talk of long years of service to the cause of black advancement. They congratulate themselves on being dressed and ready when the doors of opportunity finally opened to them, the Dunbar High School Class of 1935.
But 45 years ago, on the eve of her graduation as class valedictorian, Beatrice Black was definitely not thinking about her future in such lofty terms.
"I was thinking about going to school to get myself ready so I could make some money, baby," Black said, leaning over conspiratorially and nudging the arm of her listener, then laughing robustly at her own joke.
When he wasn't thinking about girls or football or his five letters in sports, Marvin Hightower was wondering how he would get enough cash to supplement a scholarship and follow Paul Robeson to Rutgers University.
And Jean Davison looked forward to being a teacher. "You were lucky if that's what you wanted to be, since if you were a black woman, that's all you were going to be," she said.
The Class of '35 held its 45th reunion dinner Friday, a celebration of good health and good fortune for its participants, and for observers, a reminder that the black experience did not begin in 1968.
It was a chance for some of Washington's most activist senior citizens -- most class members are 60 years old -- to talk about the city whose growth they have assisted for almost half a century. It was an ebullient, spirited review of what Dunbar was -- and was not.
Dunbar began as the old M Street School, in a humble, cramped building at the juncture of First and M Streets NW. From 1870 to 1955, Dunbar was the only city high school offering college preparation courses for black students.
Four high schools served the city's black youth then, each distinct enough from the others that together they formed what some viewed as a citywide track system for blacks.
Armstrong was the technical school; Phelps, the trade school; Cardozo the school for "business" students. And then there was Dunbar, the "academic" high school, considered by many blacks a symbol of an old caste system based upon the tone of the skin. "I'd often felt like a fly in the buttermilk, but don't quote me on that" one dark-complexioned Dunbar graduate whispered to a listener the other night. o
Over the protests of some Dunbar alumni, the old Dunbar High building at New Jersey Avenue and First Street NW was torn down and replaced two years ago with an ultramodern, concrete-and-glass structure.
Dunbar today is just another high school in the city's often-criticized public school system, plagued by poor attendance and high crime. Many of the youngsters who would be likely to attend a modern version of old Dunbar can now be found at many of the private and parochial schools that used to be beyond the economic and social reach of black Washington.
The class of '35 offers its own constellation of stars:
"We have nine MD's, several PhD's, an assistant secretary to the Treasury, an ambassador to Liberia, the first U.S. Army aviator, principals of schools and a member of the school committee, an Air Force colonel," says Charles M. Brown.
"We were born of World War I, nurtured by the Depression, shocked by World War II, but we survived to become the greatest Dunbar class ever," Brown said.
This class passed over discos and downtown hotels for their event amid the oriental carpets and glass chandeliers of the officers' club at Fort Lesley McNair in Southwest Washington.
They acted much as they must have 45 years ago, many of the men hovering just outside the door, sharing smokes and commenting on the women. The women hugged and kissed greetings and huddled in the powder room, comparing notes on the men.
Mistress of ceremonies Jean Wood Morris barely managed to get the crowd to pay attention to the program reviewing highlights from Dunbar's last five years and news collected from each of the tables. Her efforts to maintain order were frustrated by her mustashioed cohost, Frank Bolden, who wanted to "get the talk over with so we can get down and rock on the dance floor, there."
Their pearls and jewelry adorned every possible hue of chiffon, and though the air was rich with the scent of expensive perfumes and colognes, nothing filled the expansive room as deeply as the graduates' memories of what their Dunbar had meant.
"At Dunbar, we were given something that prepared us for life. It was an attitude, a belief that we had potential and could be anything we wanted to be. It was not because we had money or because the world was a great place, but because we were inspired," said Charlotte K. Brooks, former head of the English department of the D.C. public schools.
Dunbar graduates credited their families and teachers with providing them with the kind of atmosphere that encouraged success.
Dr. Lillian Wheeler was one of four women in her medical school class at Howard, and one of three black women practicing medicine in the District at the time of her graduation.
"My grandfather was a slave and could neither read nor write. He would make my mother read him every single thing that was in the paper. She'd say, 'Daddy, there ain't nothin' in this paper,' and he would say, 'Don't tell me all that writing don't mean anything, so come on and read.' I grew up with that and so did most of the others," she said.
Many of the teachers attended the nation's best white schools, like Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Cornell, and had returned to Dunbar when the white world of the early century spat upon a black scholar's aspirations.
One of the teachers, Mary Huntley, entered Radcliffe in 1914. She was the only black in the Class of 1918, and at times, the only one in her college.
She endured this loneliness, she says, to prove that "coloreds" could compete with whites on a national level. Though she is more than 80 years old, she still seethes articulately at anybody who frustrates the objectives for which she fought -- complete racial integration.
She rails against the label "middle class," lambastes those who voted down establishment of an academic high school here because they considered it elitist, and speaks despairingly of recent immigrants from the South who have come to Washington and moved into positions of power. Their different speech patterns turn her off.
"It's the cotton pickers running the city who are jealous of what we have accomplished here," she said, referring to Mayor Marion Barry, who was born in Itta Bena, Miss., and chopped cotton by his mother's side in the fields of Arkansas.
"They call anybody who speaks English middle class and a snob. Well, Barry is a cotton picker. You've got to look like a cotton picker and speak black English to get listened to, but we live in an integrated country and people preaching segregation are closing the door in their own face."
Dunbar has often been portrayed by its detractors as a spawning ground for an elitist black middle class. Yet "middle class" is a term that for a variety of reasons, many of these Dunbar graduates uniformly despise.
"We never starved," says Charlotte Brooks, "and we were pretty protected. But people say that middle class means blacks imitating whites. Well, we didn't have any whites to imitate."
To Marvin Hightower, the label itself is a joke. "When we were starting out," he said, "there was no middle class. You were wither working or you weren't. I kind of resent it. The white man puts this classification down and thinks that he can lump all of us together."
They are well off economically and they sometimes speak condescendingly of those outside the social circle of their own proverbial "we." But they are proud to say they are products of black struggle in an era when problems and solutions were viewed in different terms than today.
"Our parents protected us," said former teacher Julin Leale, "because they didn't want us to know that there was anything we couldn't do. And I can accept that -- no, i appreciate that."
"If liking books and art and education makes us middle class," adds Brooks, "then I guess I am middle class."
Though teacher Mary Huntley might have been in school to compete, many of her students said they were not preparing to integrate the world in her image.
"When integration came we were ready," says Mrs. Brooks, "but we didn't just close up and die because the white world excluded us. We were too busy to wait for integration; we were living."
Marvin W. Hightower, 62, who owns a printing business here, was a bit more blunt in his prescription for black success.
"Everything I did, I did for me, and that's the way you should go," he said, candidly.
"You've got to put your finger up and go the way the wind blows. You've got to go for the gusto, you know, gusto is a great thing. I don't think a black man should ever duck the gusto. I think you should get some of it. That's how I got where I am -- by going for the gusto and outsmarting the white man."