By Saraya Wintersmith
“First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School” is the literary debut from journalist Alison Stewart. The book chronicles the history of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School located in Northwest Washington, D.C. The Capital News caught up with Miss Stewart to find out more behind her experience piecing together the remarkable story.
Question: What got you interested in telling this story?
My mom and dad attended Dunbar in the 1940s and my grandfather attended [what was then called] M Street High School and I just knew how important education was in their lives. They used to tell me stories about these extraordinary teachers they had and this really positive community that told them they could do anything and be as good as anyone – even though the outside world was saying quite the opposite about African-Americans. While I was working in D.C., I mentioned Dunbar’s history to someone and the person had no idea at all about the academic history. They knew about the sports, but nothing about the great African-Americans who came out of the school, nothing about the school’s history or founding. I realized that the people who could tell the story were in their 70s, 80s and 90s and it was going to disappear with them so, I thought it would be really important to get this written down so that generations to come could understand how important education has been in African-American history.
Question: What did you find interesting or surprising as you wrote and researched?
The thing I really thought about was the kind of trials and tribulations of this earlier generation – the “pre” pre-civil rights generation…How much they had to go through and how they really started the movement that we all associate with the 1960s. Even though the people in Dunbar created something like a cocoon to keep the world and all the negativity about African-Americans out, they couldn’t fight the law. They still had overcrowding in schools and still they got second-hand books. One teacher – an extremely educated woman who attended Radcliffe and taught Latin at Dunbar – was even locked out of her own home because her white neighbors enacted racial covenant clauses in real estate – I mean, think about that, some 42-year-old woman, a career teacher, locked out of her own house! There were all these people in the 1930s and 40s who were the first ones to have experienced this horrible racism and discrimination and then decided to try to change the laws to make life better. They had to do it one little law at a time.
Question: This was a 7-year project, what was the process like?
The research took about 5 years. I had jobs in between, I got married and I had a baby, but the actual writing of it took about a year and a half. The initial process was tracking down Dunbar graduates who were still alive. I tried to find people who attended in the 30s and 40s first. I went across the country – California, Chicago, South Carolina, Colorado – finding them and going to their homes to hear them tell their stories. Then there was the research portion. Going into libraries where Dunbar graduates had left their papers, going to the Library of Congress, finding letters that people had written, researching old newspapers back to the 1900s [she laughs] I’ve been to so many libraries in Washington, DC. Spent hours reading through papers at Howard’s library. Then, once I had all this research information, I just tried to educate myself by reading as many books as I could about Washington history, about Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The modern aspect involved straight-up reporting – being on the scene, interviewing players, going to meetings – just doing what I could to immerse myself in the present-day situation. And then, using my skills as a journalist, I put it all together to tell a story.
Question: Was there anything difficult about this project?
That’s a good question [she pauses]. The most difficult thing was staying on-topic because everybody’s individual story was so interesting. There were so many times where I talked to someone and I felt I could just write about that one person [she chuckles]. The book touches on history and race and class and trying to focus on the story of Dunbar High School was challenging.
Question: What did you learn from this project?
I learned that when it comes to education in DC, it’s always been political. A lot of people think it just started with Michelle Rhee, but because it’s the nation’s capital and because power is so revered, politics has always been an issue in the public school system there. Who’s going to run it, who’s going to make the decisions, who’s going to fight about the buildings – it’s always been very fraught and that was illuminating to me. It put some of the arguments I’ve seen over DCPS in context.
Question: Why do you think people should read your book?
I really wanted to a write a book that was useful and helpful in some way. I think there are lessons to be drawn from Dunbar that should be applied as we’re thinking about public education. We’re having really important discussions about investing in education and what public education means and what it should look like. One of the things that really motivated me to keep writing the book was the big discussion about school reform. I thought people should realize there’s a living example in Dunbar and somebody should just research into why that school was able to succeed while there were legal and social obstacles we don’t have now. I think it’s about having an extremely well-trained teaching force, having a community that embraces and supports the school and it’s also about economics. Public schools are only as healthy as the neighborhood and the economies around them. The other thing is this whole idea in education that one size fits all these days. I think, given how complex the city is and how complex any urban area is, it’s time to rethink and acknowledge that different kids have different talents. The schools in Dunbar’s heyday did that. So, I think that looking at what made that school successful is something that anyone who’s interested in education can appreciate.
Alison Stewart is a mother, author, journalist and philanthropist. In 2013, Stewart established the First Class United Negro College Fund Scholarship “for an outstanding Dunbar High School Senior who plans to go to college.” To contribute, visit alisonstewart.net or contact Miss Denise Scott via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at (202) 810 – 0240.