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

book_cover-blogDunbar High School defied the odds and in the process changed America. In the first half of the twentieth century, Washington D.C’s Dunbar High was an academically elite public school, despite being racially segregated by law and existing at the mercy of racist congressmen who held the school’s purse strings. The school’s well-educated teachers developed generations of high-achieving African Americans, groundbreakers that included the first black member of a presidential cabinet, the first black graduate of the US Naval Academy and the legal mastermind behind school desegregation. Today, as with too many troubled urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students struggle with reading and math. But there is hope with the opening of a brand new $122 million facility that will bear the Dunbar name.

First Class Chapter Synopsis

Chapter 1: It Is What It Is

In 2008, Dunbar’s marching band, The Crimson Tide, was chosen to participate in the inaugural parade for President Barack Obama. It could have been a catalyst for change at a school in desperate need of help. An in-depth interview with the band director revealed that what should have been an uplifting experience turned into a living example of Dunbar’s woes.

Chapter 2: Teaching to Teach

Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Congress established public schools for all in the nation’s capital. Myrtilla Miner, a frail but fierce white abolitionist, dedicated her life to teaching black women to teach. Miner chose Washington DC to fulfill her goal, despite death threats and financial ruin. Her work would influence Dunbar High School for generations.

Chapter 3: The Law Giveth and The Law Taketh Away

William Syphax and local “colored” community leaders saw their moment to establish a secondary school. The Preparatory School for Colored Youth began on November 4, 1870 in a church basement with four students. For twenty years the school did not have a permanent home. It was a great triumph when city leaders finally agreed to build the “colored” children their own high school, renamed the M Street School. It was a bittersweet victory: by the time the school was built, many civil rights gains had been curtailed in the backlash against Reconstruction.

Chapter 4: It’s the Principal

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was married at 17 and widowed at 19. She bucked the odds, went to college, and became a leading feminist intellectual known throughout the country. At the turn of the century, she was also the powerhouse principal of the M Street School. She saw to it that her “scholars” received a rigorous high school education and were accepted at the most prestigious white institutions. However, certain powers that be tried to destroy her and her mission, and they almost succeeded.

Chapter 5: Brick and Mortarboards

The M Street School was moved and expanded to accommodate the growing demand for education. Dunbar High School opened in 1916, but not before politics and personal issues played out in DC. Naming the school after the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was the only universally supported decision. Dunbar’s story illustrates why he was the perfect namesake for what the NAACP called “The Greatest Negro High School in the Country.”

Chapter 6: Old School

The teachers of Dunbar High School were highly educated men and women who had extremely high standards for their students, both in and out of the classroom. One particular graduate, W. Allison Davis, class of 1920, became a groundbreaking anthropologist and also happens to be the father of the first person to hire a young Barack Obama straight out of law school.

Chapter 7: Chromatics

Dunbar’s history is dogged by charges of intra-racism. This chapter looks at the fact and fiction of Dunbar in color-struck DC.

Chapter 8: Coming of Age

Amid the growing unrest in DC, including a Dunbar teacher’s epic fight to regain her home after she was evicted due to a racial covenant, a smart but sassy young man from Harlem moved to DC to attend Dunbar. His friendship with a serious young beauty developed into a lovely and instructional tale about partnership. Their names are Joseph Turner Stewart Jr. and Carol Jocelyn Graham Stewart.

Chapter 9: Right to Serve

Dunbar produced the first black general, many of the Tuskegee airmen, and the first black graduate of the Naval Academy, Lt. Commander Wesley Brown. Brown never gave up, despite harassment and abuse while at Annapolis. He also received some help from upperclassman and future president James Carter. Carter’s interview sheds light on the racial situation in the navy at that time.

Chapter 10: Bolling not Brown

The architect of school desegregation, Charles Hamilton Houston, was a Dunbar/M Street grad, as were three of the lawyers arguing the landmark cases under Brown V. The Board of Education. This chapter looks at how the cases were argued in front of the Supreme Court and specifically how different the strategy was when it came to the Bolling V. Sharpe case in DC.

Chapter 11: Elite versus Elitism

In the 1960s, Dunbar graduates saw great success. They also suffered from a backlash at the hands of angry, young black men and women who felt left behind. Senator Ed Brooke, Dunbar ’36, and Valerie Jarrett, whose father went to Dunbar, discuss this difficult time.

Chapter 12: New School

In the 1970s, an epic battle ensued between those who wanted to tear down Dunbar High School and those who wanted to preserve it.

Chapter 13: Children Left Behind

In 2007, Michelle Rhee took over DC’s public school system. Rhee explains her bold decision about Dunbar that failed No Child Left Behind five years in a row.

Chapter 14: From Bed Stuy to Shaw

The Friends of Bedford, a successful outside contractor from NYC, relocated to DC to turn around Dunbar. The men moved to DC and laid out their plan, but encountered entrenched ideas.

Chapter 15: The Fall

Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated by Dunbar graduate, City Councilman Vince Gray. What was next for Dunbar? Would the reforms continue? Interviews include Mayor Vincent Gray and Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for “Superman.”

Chapter 16: New, New School

In August 2013, the doors of a new, $122 million dollar Dunbar Senior High School will open. It is a last attempt to revive the school’s original spirit. The architects who took up the challenge are passionate about the students and Dunbar’s future.

Chapter 17: Back to the Future

A building can only do so much; in the end it comes down to the educators and students. There are signs of hope at Dunbar, one of which comes in the form of three teachers, a young white Teach for America implant, a returning former Dunbar football star, and a Christian no nonsense dean of students, who are determined to see that Dunbar students get a chance.


“In First Class, Alison Stewart skillfully chronicles the rise and fall of Dunbar High School, America’s first black public high school. Recalling the institution’s extraordinary legacy and the lives of it’s accomplished alumni — her own parents included — Stewart will convince you that there’s cause for hope, and that the school’s brightest days may still be ahead”

— President Bill Clinton

“The US Army’s first black general. The first black federal judge. The first black cabinet secretary. If you pull the thread that ties together these (and so many other) pioneers in African American achievement, you find the story of Dunbar High School. Alison Stewart uncovers the hidden history of a great American institution, and shows us the moving, herculean, human effort it took to build it in the first place, and to rebuild it now. What an amazing story – what a great book.”

— Rachel Maddow, author of Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, and host of The Rachel Maddow Show

“A well-reported, passionate study of the triggers for failure and success within American urban education.”

— Kirkus

“A fascinating account of the legacy of a legendary school.”

— Booklist

“Stewart’s question, “What will the newest incarnation of Dunbar be?” remains germane, especially as its new building is scheduled to open in fall 2013. Contemplating Dunbar’s history may offer answers.”

— Publisher’s Weekly

“Stewart walks the reader through how the school was established, how it became an institution that graduated many prominent African Americans, and what led to its decline and current state. It is a very well researched book that includes a lot information not just about the high school itself but the greater history of our country. If this is a topic that interests you at all I would highly recommend reading this book.”


“In the meantime, my esteem for Alison Stewart’s lively, wide-ranging history of this seminal DC high school has not diminished.”

— Molly McArdle Associate Editor Library Journal Book Review