Dunbar High School: The Pride of the Race

September 25, 2010

The current debate over educational excellence, characterized by President Obama’s Race to the Top, overlooks one of the most inspiring and compelling models of teaching and African American educational excellence-Dunbar High School, located in Washington D.C. What is now called a typical “ghetto” school was once the pride of the race, out performing in city-wide examination students attending the high school for whites. Within the walls of Dunbar from 1870 to 1954 (eighty-four years) there was teaching of only black children by only black teachers. There was a respect for learning and an expectation of superiority based on knowledge and pride emanating from teachers and instilled into students that made Dunbar a special educational environment.

Ironically, since the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students and denying black children equal educational opportunities unconstitutional, schools labeled as urban or inner-city (code for black) have failed to perform at the level of the so-called segregated schools of the South and North. For example, African American students ranked lasting the scoring on the national SAT and ACT.¹ An even more disturbing statistic is the high school dropout rate among black male student. The research from the Massachusetts-based Schott Foundation on Public Education shows that more than half- 53 percent- of black male students drops out of high school without a diploma, compared to 22 percent of white males. It’s a stunning statistic that foretells a permanent underclass, forever stuck outside the American mainstream.²

Dunbar High School offers an attractive model which goes beyond issuing slogans, threats, and blame. Between 1910 and 1930, for instance, the Dunbar students, who went “North” to school, entered Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Brown, Colby, Colgate, Dartmounth, Hamilton, Harvard, Michigan, Oberlin, Universities of Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, and Syracuse to name just a few. Many received Phi Beta Kappa keys. Of the 156 Rosewald Fellowships awarded between 1937 and 1952, twenty-one or thirteen percent went to Dunbar graduates.³

Today, endeavors to create an environment which will produce black graduates able to meet and even determine the requirements of the larger society must look to Dunbar as a blueprint for success. The components of Dunbar’s success included the following:

  • Teaching philosophy- At Dunbar, teachers provided quality education for their students because they and the students and the community believed it was possible to do so. They had not been told that it was not, nor were they then denied the possibility of reaching the best young black minds of the city. Dunbar was designed and saw as its mission to produce superior student capable of meeting any standards the American system wished to project.

  • A rigorous and challenging curriculum- As early as 1899, Dunbar’s curriculum was based on courses in English, Latin, French, Spanish, German, history, mathematics, science, art and music. The prepared African American students to attend the highest academic colleges in the United States. It is interesting to note that Dunbar did not, as a rule, try to prepare black athletes to seek coveted athletic scholarships.
  • Conscious, committed, and capable teachers and administrators- From get-go, Dunbar teachers and administrators were mission-focused and mission-driven. Teachers, the grandson of Frederick Douglass, the Father of Black History Month, Cater G. Woodson, were among the list of teachers who represent W.E.B Dubois’s Talented Tenth. The teachers who were black and could thereby provide a basis of identity did derive their intellectual, if not their emotional strengths from having themselves achieved in the larger society. Dunbar during its florescence capitalized and built upon the strengths of blacks who brought knowledge and security to an educational to an educational task because they themselves had met the standards of the larger society.

  • Engaged and motivated students- At Dunbar students exhibited a respect for learning. Neither the student nor the teachers were handicapped by strong feelings of bitterness, hostility, or inferiority. The energies of the students were not wasted on hating each other; all were directed toward developing a superior academic orientation and outcome. All students knew and sang with regularity and more feeling than the manner in which they saluted the American flag “The Black National Anthem,” with the words penned by poet James Weldon Johnson and which began “Lift every voice and sing…” There were no high school sororities or fraternities. Extra-curricular activities were based on interest, not social status: a stamp club, a Black History club, or, in competition, the National Honor Society.

Therefore, if Dunbar can be informative and instructive, it would seem that creating high performing schools first a function of context. Once within the walls of Dunbar, all students were exposed to a special academic environment. This meant for many students the essential and first step on the ladder of equality with any student of similar endowment of any race. Second, parents and the community were an integral part of the education process, reinforcing the value of learning, and the value of the school as a learning institution. Put another way, parents and the community embraced Dunbar and Dunbar embraced them.  Third, teachers had high expectations of their students and believed in their academic potential and possibilities. Terms like “ghetto” school, “culturally deprived youth,” “combat pay,” were not part of their vocabulary or thinking. Teachers, as a rule, expected to produce college graduates, and were not hesitant to provide the most challenging and rigorous academic subjects, confident that their students could master these subjects.

As parents, citizens, taxpayers, and policy makers, we need to revisit the Dunbar High School legacy and experience. It should be required reading for school officials and teachers, students, and parents. Initiatives and policies which attempt to improve school performance for poorly performing schools, should use it as a starting point and reference for educational excellence.


  1. Schott Foundation for Public Education: The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education
  2. Cynthia Tucker, The Atlanta Journal, September 18, 2010
  3. Adelaide Cromwell Hill: The Black Seventies Black Education in the Seventies: A Lesson from the Past
  4. Mary Gibson Hundley, The Dunbar Story (1870-1955)
  5. Mary Church Terrell History of the High School for Negroes in Washington, Journal of the Negro History, Vol. II, 1917

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One Response to Dunbar High School: The Pride of the Race

  1. Karriem on September 27, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    You took the words out of my mouth. M street academy produced some of the greatest African Americans in history. Most of the Spingarn medal winners. I have been unable to find the copy of The Dunbar Story. but I have spoken to members of the Syphax family. By I have reviewed other related acticles as well as studied the life of H. Naylor Fitzhugh class of ’26.

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