Synopses & Reviews
In the first half of the twentieth century, Dunbar 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. These enormous challenges did not stop the local community from rallying for the cause of educating its children.
Dunbar attracted an amazing faculty: one early principal was the first black graduate of Harvard, almost all the teachers had graduate degrees, and several earned PhDs—all extraordinary achievements given the Jim Crow laws of the times. Over the school’s first eighty years, these teachers developed generations of highly educated, high-achieving African Americans, groundbreakers that included the first black member of a presidential cabinet, the first black graduate of the US Naval Academy, the first black army general, the creator of the modern blood bank, the first black attorney general, the legal mastermind behind school desegregation, and hundreds of educators.
By the 1950s, Dunbar High School was sending 80 percent of its students to college. Today, as with many troubled urban public schools, there are Dunbar students who struggle with basic reading and math. Journalist and author Alison Stewart, whose parents were both Dunbar graduates, tells the story of the school’s rise, fall, and path toward resurgence as it looks to reopen its new, state-of-the-art campus.
Combining a fascinating history of the first U.S. high school for African Americans with an unflinching analysis of urban public-school education today, First Class explores an underrepresented and largely unknown aspect of black history while opening a discussion on what it takes to make a public school successful. In 1870, in the wake of the Civil War, citizens of Washington, DC, opened the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the first black public high school in the United States; it would later be renamed Dunbar High and would flourish despite Jim Crow laws and segregation. Dunbar attracted an extraordinary faculty: its early principal was the first black graduate of Harvard, and at a time it had seven teachers with PhDs, a medical doctor, and a lawyer. During the school’s first 80 years, these teachers would develop generations of highly educated, successful African Americans, and at its height in the 1940s and ’50s, Dunbar High School sent 80 percent of its students to college. Today, as in too many failing urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students are barely proficient in reading and math. Journalist and author Alison Stewart—whose parents were both Dunbar graduates—tells the story of the school’s rise, fall, and possible resurgence as it reopens a new, state-of-the-art campus.
About the Author
Alison Stewart is an award-winning journalist whose 20-year career includes anchoring and reporting for MTV, PBS, NBC News, ABC News, and CBS News. Most recently she was the host of the NPR program The TED Radio Hour. She lives in New York City. Melissa Harris-Perry is an author, a political commentator, a television host, and a professor of political science at Tulane University. She lives in New Orleans.