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The Truth About America's First Black Public High School

Black students at Dunbar High School in Washington, DC

Originally established in 1870, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School located in Washington, DC was the first public high school established just for African American students. It 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, however, did not stop the local Black community from rallying for the cause of educating its children.
According to First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar by journalist and author Alison Stewart, the school attracted an amazing faculty. For example, one of the early principals 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.

During the school’s first 80 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 first Black attorney general, the legal mastermind behind school desegregation, and hundreds of educators.

In fact, by the 1950s, Dunbar High School was sending 80% of its students to college. What a legacy for America's very first Black public high school!