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  • The Dunbar High School DilemmaArchitecture, Power, and African American Cultural Heritage
  • Amber N. Wiley (bio)

To us, tearing down Dunbar High School is like somebody trying to tear down the Washington Monument or the Capitol.

—Dr. Henry S. Robinson,
D.C. City Council Member, 1974

What a paradox and contradiction it would be today, if on the projected Bicentennial tours of historic sites in Washington dealing with black history, a visitor would ask, “Where is the Dunbar High School,” and be told, “Oh! That’s been torn down at the urging of Afro-Americans themselves, the modern Afro-American really does not care anything about his history.”

—W. Montague Cobb,
NAACP National President, 1976

I don’t know how people can sit down and talk about preserving mortar and brick when the needs of the students are staring them in the face.

—Phyllis R. Beckwith, principal,
Dunbar High School, 1977

For three years in the mid-1970s a highly contested and public debate transpired in Washington, D.C., that centered on the impeding demolition of the vacant 1916 building that formerly housed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Dunbar was the institutional successor of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the first public high school established for blacks in the nation. Advocates for demolition, including the school’s administration, many city officials, and members of the Board of Education, were adamant that they had in mind the best interests of students. In lieu of a worn-down structure, students would enjoy a highly innovative and completely modernized school plant. Additionally, students would gain a home football field where the 1916 building once stood. Students and administrators considered the field a much-needed addition to school grounds, as the Dunbar athletics program was garnering nationwide recognition. Demolition opponents—preservationists, local historians, and many alumni—countered by arguing that keeping the historic Dunbar High School would benefit students. Preservation of the building would provide students with a physical reminder of the rich history of their school, an example of black academic excellence in Jim Crow America.

The debate surrounding the demolition of the building revealed a complex shift in black political empowerment that was embodied in a new attitude toward the built environment. The reappropriation of African American history and culture, part and parcel of the Black Power movement, was exemplified by a new vision for the future based on citizen participation, autonomous neighborhoods, and avant-garde solutions to the problems that plagued black communities in cities. These solutions included the creation of large-scale, modern, urban high schools that were meant not only to educate but also to stimulate stagnant or declining black urban centers.1

How did the African American community in Washington deal with preservation, talk about its implications, and imagine it working to transform negative opinions about a school that was previously a symbol of black educational excellence? [End Page 95] This research examines the idea of an educational landmark, loss of physical institutional memory, and arguments against preserving the 1916 building because it embodied the taint of classism and colorism in the African American community. The conversation in Washington around the demolition of the 1916 Dunbar school plant reveals how African Americans in a once exceptionally successful urban community envisioned their history and discrimination through a built environment created in tandem with segregation.2 It also highlights what was at stake in this particular preservation battle and how advocates of demolition believed a new building would address the needs of an economically depressed urban community.

For critics of perceived colorism in Washington, the 1916 Dunbar school building was a symbol of an era of exclusionary practices within the African American community.3 This group included politicians, city administrators, and alumni of both Dunbar and Armstrong Manual Training high schools. The school building served as a painful and demoralizing reminder of segregation and was no longer necessary in a postsegregation society.4 Desegregation, changes in educational policy and pedagogy (such as the emergence of the open-plan school), the 1968 riots, subsequent recovery efforts, and a growing consciousness of cultural empowerment shaped the design concept for a new building. Community leaders recognized that the new Dunbar, along...


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pp. 95-128
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