Matthew Emery Elementary School is a little-known, nondescript brown brick building tucked off at the corner of Lincoln Road and S Street NE. That seems fitting, because the man for whom the building is named is equally little-known today.
Few of the school's 511 students can tell you that Matthew Gault Emery (1818-1901) was a stonemason who in the 1840s laid the cornerstone for the Washington Monument.
But he has a school named for him because he was the last elected mayor of Washington until the 1970s. His term expired in 1870, and the city was not allowed to elect another mayor until 1974.
Like any city, Washington has its share of school buildings named for U.S. presidents and famous people, but most of the city's 200 public schools take the names of now-obscure Washington educators, commissioners, philanthropists, clergymen, lawyers and scientists.
An examination of school namesakes reveals a great deal about the city's history and how Washington has changed politically and racially through the years.
Before the Civil War, black children could receive little more than an elementary school education.
Myrtilla Miner (1815-1864), a frail, white woman whose poverty-stricken childhood on her father's New York farm sparked her determination to help others, first went to pre-Civil War Mississippi to teach slave children. But educating slaves was against the law, so she came to Washington.
She opened a school for the daughters of freed slaves in rented rooms on New York Avenue NW, but hostile neighbors soon forced her to move.
With the support of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Miner raised $1,000 in 1851 and purchased a plot of land bounded by 19th, 20th, N and O streets NW, where she built one of the city's first high schools for black women. The school named for her stands at 601 15th St. NE.
The Kelly Miller Junior High School at 49th and Brooks streets NE is named for a man (1863-1939) who as a boy won a reputation as a mathematics genius.
As a member of Howard University's class of 1886, Miller so impressed the professors at Johns Hopkins University that they accepted him to graduate school.
After graduation Miller taught math for a short time at the Washington Colored High School, then he returned to Howard University to teach and later became dean. He wrote a column that was syndicated in 100 black newspapers across the country.
Spingarn High School, 24th Street and Benning Road NE, pays tribute to Joel Elias Spingarn (1875-1939), a literary critic who once headed the department of comparative literature at Columbia University. A founder of the NAACP, Spingarn became its president in 1930 and served until his death. He established the Spingarn Medal in 1941 to honor distinguished blacks.
The Bertie Backus Junior High School, South Dakota Avenue and Hamilton Street NE, honors a woman who was called a born teacher. Backus (1889-1955) served as principal of Alice Deal Junior High School and was an ardent advocate of character training for schoolchildren. In 1934, she was appointed by President Roosevelt to direct a congressionally sponsored character education experiment to combat juvenile delinquency.
In upper Northwest, the Hearst School at 37th and Tilden streets takes its name from Phoebe Apperson Hearst (1842-1919). The wife of Sen. George Hearst, she was the richest woman in California, but more than that, a philanthropist described by Sen. Copeland of New York as "the most public-spirited woman of her period."
She launched the parent-teacher movement, maintained a school for the training kindergarten teachers in the District, contributed $250,000 toward the building of the National Cathedral School for Girls, and made a generous contribution to the College of History at American University.
The Oyster School at 29th and Calvert streets NW is named not for the bivalve but for James F. Oyster (1851-1925), merchant, commissioner of the District of Columbia, and Board of Education president.
Garnet-Patterson Junior High School, 10th and U streets, NW has a biracial name. Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882), pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, once the city's preeminient black church, was the first black invited to speak in Congress. His sermon to the House on Feb. 12, 1865, celebrated the coming Union Army victory in the Civil War and the virtual end of slavery. He was appointed minister to Liberia in 1881 and died there the following year.
James Willis Patterson (1823-1893), a New Hampshire educator and congressman, sponsored legislation that transferred control of the city's handful of black public schools from the U.S. Department of Interior to a congressionally appointed board of trustees in 1862.
A few blocks west, Cardozo High School, at 13th and Clifton streets NW, Francis L. Cardozo (1836-1903), who served as the treasurer of South Carolina before coming to the District to work for 50 years as a teacher and principal in the city's schools.
Walker-Jones School, at First and L streets NW, pays tribute to two individuals who represent "firsts": Major James E. Walker, former principal of Syphax and Banneker Schools, became the first officer from the military forces of the District to lose his life in World War I. Alfred Jones, a merchant who had a flourishing feed store, was the first black man appointed to the board of trustees for the public black schools of Washington and Georgetown.
On the other side of the Anacostia River there are two Woodson schools. The Carter G. Woodson junior high at 4101 Minnesota Ave. NE is named after a coal miner (1875-1950) whose poverty kept him out of high school until age 20. He went on to become a noted historian and is credited with beginning the celebration of black history in the month of February to coincide with the birth date of Abraham Lincoln.
The H.D. Woodson High School at 55th and Eads streets NE is dedicated to Howard D. Woodson (1876-1962), a structural engineer and civic leader who worked tirelessly on behalf of far Northeast and sponsored the movement to place a bridge over the Anacostia River at East Capitol Street.
The Brent School, Third and D streets SE on Capitol Hill, honors the memory of the man President Jefferson appointed as Washington's first mayor (and the only mayor to be appointed for 10 successive terms), banker Robert Brent. His country home is now Brentwood.
The McGogney School, Wheeler Road and Mississippi Avenue SE, is the namesake of Gladys McGogney, a humanitarian who came to this country from Wales at a young age and pioneered free lunches for schoolchildren in the Congress Heights area.
Ballou High School, Fourth and Trenton streets SE, takes its name from Frank Washington Ballou (1879-1955), whose 23 years as D.C. superintendent of schools were marked by the building of 60 schools, improved vocational training, higher standards of teaching and increased teacher salaries. But his tenure was marked by some friction. Ballou said "popularity and efficiency are not good bedfellows and I prefer to be efficient."