The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Central High School gave up its building but not its spirit

Cardozo High School in 2011.
Cardozo High School in 2011. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Euegene L. Meyer is a former Post reporter.

It has been nearly 70 years since Central High School, the District’s elite secondary school for whites in the city’s segregated school system, ceased to exist.

The last class graduated from the magnificent building at 13th and Clifton streets NW on the hill overlooking monumental Washington in June 1950. That September, the building became Cardozo High School; its black students had moved from a vastly crowded facility at Ninth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW. This was done to maintain the fiction of racially separate but equal public schools four years before the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education and its local companion case Bolling v. Sharpe.

Central High School’s notable alumni included actress Helen Hayes; broadcast journalist Charles Collingwood, who worked in radio with Edward R. Murrow as one of “Murrow’s Boys”; and future FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Less well-known, perhaps, were my wife’s paternal grandfather, Paul Pearlman (Class of 1914), and great-aunt Florence Frank, a 1913 classmate of the Cadet Corps Company A commander and valedictorian then known as “Speed” Hoover.

For decades, Central alumni mourned the passing of their school, many bitterly. Amid their refusal to let go of the past, Centralites clung to their memories and maintained an active alumni association. While Centralites nursed their wounds, they were determined, if not to recapture the past, then at least to preserve and perpetuate the school spirit.

Thus, annually, Central alumni gathered for a reunion, to relive past glories and sing the school song and shout the school cheer. “Central Will Shine Tonight,” they sang, though it no longer did. For years, they met at the Charles Sumner School Museum, at 17th and M streets NW, in the building that housed the District’s first black high school, dating to 1872.

But much as some might have wished, Cardozo would not go away; the school on the hill was intact, harboring a lost connection to the past that a few alumni hoped to reestablish.

Tentative steps were taken in the early 1990s when the alumni association board voted to give scholarships to deserving Cardozo students. The last reported award was in 2006. As alumni were aging and their numbers dwindling, the group decided to split whatever was left in their treasury between the Sumner School Museum and Cardozo for continuing scholarships — a total of $22,000 went to the school. It was time to disband, some board members said. Others disagreed and even hired a lawyer. The association continued.

New School Ties” was the headline on an article I wrote for The Washington Post Magazine, published Dec. 21, 1997. It was a feel-good story of racial reconciliation. Central alumni toured Cardozo, where they were warmly received and had lunch.

Regrettably, the new spirit seemed to dissolve a few years later, when the new alumni board sought an accounting of funds that had been turned over to the school. “We are no longer obligated to give awards to any students at Cardoza [sic] since the former group allocated a substantial amount of money for awards through 2012,” reported then-association president Ester Kronman Litman in December 2003.

Through it all, I have remained on the alumni association mailing list and continue to receive the biannual newsletter, the Central High Alumni Record, which, more and more, consists largely of obituaries. The committee members I interviewed about the scholarships are all gone. Their names are worth recalling: Eileen Shanahan, a New York Times reporter who broke the gender barrier in economic news; Fred Dunn, a Montgomery County teacher and administrator instrumental in desegregating the county schools in 1955; and Marion Bishop Polli, who began her career as a bank bookkeeper and rose to vice president of the National Bank of Washington. The youngest surviving Central High School graduates are now in their mid-80s.

“The problem is we’re all getting older,” says Joan Thuma Chaconas, Class of 1949 and the alumni association president. “Of course, it’s better to keep getting older than not.”

The school’s Latin motto, “tenax propositi,” resonates still with the remaining Central alumni, some of whom will gather May 16 for a reunion luncheon meeting. Loosely translated, it means: Stay steadfast to your endeavors.

Read more about his issue:

Joan Quigley: How D.C. ended segregation a year before Brown v. Board of Education

Imani Perry: Five myths about Brown v. Board of Education

Glenn Frankel: When a Va. county closed its schools rather than admit black students