One day in May 1954, classes at the District’s Dunbar High School were interrupted by the principal’s voice crackling through the loudspeakers. “He said the Supreme Court of the United States just declared school segregation to be unconstitutional,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, a graduate of the Class of 1955 and now the D.C. delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, told journalist Alison Stewart. The significance of the news was not lost on Norton nor any other student in the all-black school. “It was a moment that nobody who was there would ever forgot,” she recalled. “There were teachers who nearly cried. It was the kind of announcement you’d make at Dunbar and everyone . . . would understand what it meant to us.”

What it meant, Stewart explains in her new book, “First Class,” was that Dunbar would never be the same. From that moment forward, she writes, the school’s reputation as a sterling institution of black education that produced Army generals, surgeons and civil rights leaders was diminished.

The school is now known as one of the most troubled in the District. Dunbar has persistent truancy issues, and fewer than one-third of the students are proficient in reading. Only six in 10 students graduate on time, and only four in 10 make it to college. Stewart notes that, at the time of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, Dunbar High sent 80 percent of its graduates to college — the highest rate of any school in the District, black or white.

Stewart traces the school’s decline by beginning with the history of black education in Washington and Dunbar’s remarkable start as the nation’s first public high school for African Americans. Founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the school benefited from a well-trained faculty in its early years, thanks to the prescient efforts of Myrtilla Miner.

In 1851, Miner opened a school for free black people in Washington with the idea that her students would go on to serve as teachers. It was a bold plan, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass told Miner that, in a city that once used tax revenue from the slave trade to fund schools for white children, the notion of teaching blacks to teach themselves was “reckless, almost to the point of madness.” But Miner’s program succeeded, in large part because of the generosity of the Rev. William H. Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Royalties from the book helped pay for a new school building for Miner and her students, Stewart writes.

“First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School” by Alison Stewart. (Courtesy of Independent Publishers Group)

Many of Miner’s graduates found work at the high school that opened in the basement of the 15th Street Presbyerian Church, with financial help from Miner’s estate, on Nov. 4, 1870. Early on, the school was led by Mary Jane Patterson, a daughter of slaves who became the first black woman to earn a college degree. Patterson, who graduated from Oberlin College in 1862, was credited with instituting a rigorous curriculum at the high school. Students had to master physics, geometry and geography, and answer such questions as: “Name in order the bodies of water through which you would sail going from Chicago to Halifax.” In 1916, the school dedicated a new building and was rechristened after Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poet son of slaves, known for harnessing the lyrical black vernacular of his time.

The school’s early graduates served as leaders of industry, politics and law. They included Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who became the U.S. Army’s first black general; Robert Weaver, who became the first black Cabinet member after he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Edward Brooke, who became the first black politician elected to the Senate.

“Flying in the face of racist stereotypes and restrictive segregation laws, Dunbar graduates broke through glass ceilings and shattered assumptions,” Stewart writes, and the book truly shines as she relates the stories of lesser-known Dunbar graduates such as Wesley Brown, who overcame racial intolerance and blistering epithets to become the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. But at times the book slogs along and loses focus. In one long passage, Stewart relates her own connection to Dunbar — both of her parents were graduates — and the family history bogs down the narrative.

During a 2003 visit to Dunbar, Stewart found a school adrift: “The only remnants of Dunbar’s former academic glory could be seen in a dusty display case filled with faded pictures and tarnished trophies.” According to her, the desegregation of public schools in the District led to a significant change in student demographics. Dunbar became a neighborhood school, as opposed to the selective one that until 1955 catered mainly to the children of Washington’s elite class of African Americans.

Now a decade later, Stewart writes, Dunbar could be poised for change. The 2013 school year began with a new building, airy and lit by tall windows. It’s a significant improvement over Dunbar’s old home, a dreary 1970s behemoth that Stewart describes as the “equivalent of an educational Death Star.” Dunbar now has an opportunity to “attempt to rebuild itself day by day with a new building, new teachers, new students, and perhaps even a new culture.”

And perhaps the note for a new Dunbar was struck by the Class of 2013 valedictorian, Johnathon Carrington, who matriculated in the fall at Georgetown University. “Our future will not come easy,” he told his classmates in his valedictory address. “It’s up to us to continue our road to excellence.” Indeed, as reported in this newspaper , in recent weeks Dunbar alumni, parents and others have been working on a proposal designed to restore the school to its former standing as an elite educational institution.

T. Rees Shapiro covers education in Fairfax County for The Washington Post.


The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School

By Alison Stewart

Lawrence Hill. 336 pp. $26.95