"I couldn't get a job as a printer. Couldn't get an apprenticeship because I was black," John D. Fauntleroy recalled last weekend at the 80th anniversary reunion of Armstrong Technical High, Washington's manual training school for blacks.
Fauntleroy learned printing at Armstrong in the era of segregated schools in Washington and graduated in 1937. But after finding the doors to his craft closed to him, Fauntleroy decided to give his secret ambition a try. He decided to attend the old Robert H. Terrell Law School in the District.
Today Fauntleroy is a D.C. Superior Court judge and a symbol of what his alma mater has always prided itself on: combining strict academic training with basic technical skills.
Indeed, there were enough doctors, carpenters, mail clerks, school administrators, lawyers, beauticians and former city officials at the Shoreham Americana Hotel Saturday night to prove the school was successful in doing both.
Former D.C. police chief Burtell Jefferson was there. So was former school board president Anita Allen. Both were high on the list of Armstrong success stories, along with former students Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine and National Football League Hall of Famer Lenny Ford.
But after all these years, faculty and students of the school that is now an Adult Education Center still contend they never got credit for their academic and cultural achievements. Armstrong, they said, always was overshadowed by its arch rival, Dunbar High.
"One of the things about Washington, D.C., is that frequently we only hear about the other high school," Elizabeth Yancey told the crowd of nearly 1,000. Yancey told the crowd of nearly 1,000. Yancey, class of 1941, and a former D.C. school vice superintendent, spiritedly referred to what others throughout the evening called "the school across the street."
Until the mid-1950's, Dunbar was a celebrated academic high school that turned out many of the nation's black leaders and professionals. Meanwhile, in an era when few blacks could afford college, Armstrong was teaching such trades as printing, tailoring and auto mechanics in addition to the basics.
"You could prepare for college but also other work," said Geraldine Joiner of Northwest who got her diploma in 1945. "I went because if I didn't get the opportunity (to go to college), I could learn some other skills. That's why the others went, too."
Despite the passage of time, Armstrong faithful still are bothered by the feeling that Armstrong was ignored because of the overwhelming success of its middle-class sister, Dunbar.
"At Armstrong, everything got played down," Joiner said. "We always played second fiddle."
Lottie Gilbert, who has been one of Joiner's best friends since graduation, put it more dramatically: "It was segregation among the races."
Gilbert reminisced about a class system in the black community she said was based on skin color and money and had little to do with academic achievement. In Gilbert's mind, that was the only reason for Armstrong's "second class status" since its students were just as ambitious and academically skilled as any in the city.
But Armstrong was second to none last weekend as alumni and former faculty recalled their good times and counted their successes -- including architects Charles who Robert Bryant, Armstrong graduates who designed the new Dunbar High complex.
At least half of Geraldine Joiner's 10 brothers and sisters, who grew up in Northwest when 9th & T strets was "a good area," attended Armstrong. Her older brother Hughey Joiner, class of 1942, said he went to Armstrong because of its sports reputation.
"Undefeated. The greatest team in Washington," boasted Joiner, who was playing football the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Joiner joked about another pastime: skipping Friday afternoon classes to catch the matinee at the Howard Theatre. "Only cost a quarter," Joiner said. Others reminded him of how he and some friends once were caught and escorted out of the theater by Assistant Principal Cato Adams.
"I never saw a boy that I could not handle," said Adams, a spritely 92. "They were six feet tall but some of them I could put in my hip pocket."
Adams is the oldest living Armstrong graduate, the sole survivor of the class of 1908. He marched with the Armstrong cadet corps in Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural parade. After college, Adams returned to Armstrong to teach mathematics and served as assistant principal for boys. He retired "before big salaries" in 1947 but still has opinions about D.C.'s school system.
"People ought to be charitable and give it a chance," he said of the city's new academic high school, which opponents contend may create an academic elite. "Most of them are afraid that there'll be too much favoritism," Adams said. "But I'm not going to start knocking it before it gets off the ground."