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

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Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, defied the odds and, in the process, changed America. 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 extraordinary 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 state 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 too many troubled urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students struggle with 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 in the fall of 2013.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2013

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Alison Stewart

2 books8 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews
Profile Image for Valarie.
158 reviews10 followers
December 26, 2013
Generally, Alison Stewart did a good job with the overall narrative, but I'm sure old-school Dunbar graduates will have fits about the occasional typos and misspellings and that the narrative sort of broke down in the end. This is a good effort, but it could have been better.
Profile Image for Krystina.
43 reviews17 followers
April 27, 2018
I first learned about this book from an interview with the author on a local radio station. Growing up outside of Washington, DC I always heard of Dunbar HS; unfortunately, it was usually something negative. What I loved most about this book was the dedication and hard work of the educators/administration at Dunbar and the local community that produced some of the best playwrights, educators, artists, government officials, and doctors.
Profile Image for Tunde.
95 reviews12 followers
January 11, 2016
i loved this book for many reasons. i'm a fan of dc and black history and this book gives great lessons on both. it also shows some positive effects of segregation albeit short lived effects. its a long read but definitely worth it. education plus history plus african american culture.
Profile Image for Ari.
949 reviews41 followers
January 2, 2014
This is an amazing and sometimes painful story of America's first black public high school, located in Washington D.C. The author is the daughter of two Dunbar alums and she maintains a respectful tone when dealing with the school, reverential of its history but she includes the views of people who did not like the school, those who gradually became disappointed with it. She includes the multiple sides at play when the school was renovated in the 1970s (many alumni were against it because it destroyed the 1916 building but some alumni were for it and now the school has been newly renovated as modern-day people connected to the school bemoan it's '70s decor and design). I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Dunbar's journey reflects the journey of many public-high schools in America, a school that used to be triumphant and attract the best talent in teachers and then went through a very serious rough patch and is currently attempting to rebuild and restructure. I love history and this book reminded me of how resilient Black people are, we made the best of a segregated high school and produced some of the finest contributors to our nation' history. It's a shame that it had to be segregated and is still mostly segregated today (the difference being that it is no longer mandated segregation of course). Reading about Dunbar's decline was actually heartbreaking as the atmosphere of the school changed; the caliber of the teachers seemed to deteriorate and the attitudes of the students turned less towards academics. The story becomes much more focused on socio-economics and shows the connection between Dunbar becoming a desegregated public high school and neighborhood-based instead, as the quality of the neighborhood changed so too did the environment inside the school. But the book ends on a hopeful note. The principal and few teachers interviewed seem passionate and dedicated, large sums of money were allocated for Dunbar to get newly renovated and promote it's heritage while leaving plenty of visible encouragement for its new students and their future achievements. I will be following the story of Dunbar with interest because I do think it plays a huge role in the story of public school education. This book read like a story, easy readability with an engaging cast of characters and great setting.

I only wish there had been a section in the back with short biographies and pictures of all the elite and famous Dunbar alumni such as Charles Drew, Benjamin O.Davis Jr., Sen. Edward Brooke, Anna Julia Cooper, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mary Church Terrell, and Jean Toomer (just to name a few).

Here's a link so that you can see the new Dunbar High School http://dc.curbed.com/archives/2013/08...
Profile Image for David.
145 reviews8 followers
January 12, 2014
By 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the famous decision of Brown v. Board of Education, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. had a distinguished history. According to Alison Stewart: “More than sixteen thousand young men and women had graduated from the institution.” This was no small accomplishment for African Americans had n been free from slavery less than a hundred years. Moreover, “eighty percent of the graduates went to college.” A fair number of Dunbar’s graduates went to Ivy League colleges such as Harvard, Cornell, Yale, and Brown.
Alison Stewart’s book, her first, is an excellent and well researched account of this historic African American high school. She journalist who has worked for NPR, MNBC, and PBS. This book is a good read as well as being inspirational.
A list of Dunbar graduates reads like a Who’s Who in America. The faces of six of its graduates appear on U.S. postage stamps. Its graduates include: Dr. Charles Drew, Lieutenant Commander Wesley Brown who was the first black to graduate from the naval academy, Robert Weaver who was the first black in a president’s cabinet, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. who was the first black general in the United States Army, and his son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. who also became an army general, and Charles Hamilton Houston, “the man who killed Jim Crow.” Add to that list one United States Senator, Edward Brooke. Dunbar educated some of the brightest and best.
Not only were the students excellent, so were the teachers. Many of the faculty members were Ivy League graduates who should have been on the faculties of the nation’s top colleges, but racial prejudice and segregation prevented it. Some of the distinguished faculty at the school was: Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and Jessie Fauset. These teachers demanded excellence from their students and got it despite their school being underfunded by Congress.
The school had amazing principals. Many of the principals were doctors, lawyers, or Ph.Ds. who could not obtain other positions suitable to their talent and education due to racism. Nevertheless, these administrators set high standards for their faculty and for their students. Excellence was demanded and expected. Among the distinguished principals of Dunbar were Dr. Anna Julia Cooper (who was forced out for being brilliant and “uppity”) and Robert Terrell who would later be a judge in the District.
Finally, I highly recommend First Class The Legacy of Dunbar, The Nation’s First Black Public High School. This should be required reading for all teachers in the United States
Profile Image for Lisa.
314 reviews21 followers
November 19, 2013
I wanted to like this book better than I did. It should have been one I liked- it's by Alison Stewart. Unfortunately, it seemed out of focus. When Stewart was on, it was great. But she often went on protracted digressions, to the point that I actually lost the thread on two occasions. There are a few chapters in which huge chunks of text are blockquoted from primary sources, which I found quite distracting, and while the book is more or less in chronological order, it's still difficult to keep straight with all the tangents.

I came away from the book feeling like the author had two things in mind when she set out on this project- one a bigger story about the black experience in DC or maybe the history of black education, the other more personal. In the end, she never quite decided which of the two to pursue, and the resulting mix is not terribly satisfying. As interesting as I found the personal story centered on Dunbar alumni and particularly her parents and their classmates, I sincerely hope that Stewart will at some point revisit the bigger story.
1,487 reviews17 followers
April 29, 2013
This book chronicles the history of Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., which as the title indicates was the first public black high school in the United States. Set against the larger backdrop of racial relations, segregation, and the educational system in the country from the end of slavery up through today 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.
Author 6 books9 followers
May 25, 2014
A not-so-great history of a great and historic school. Stewart does a good job of capturing the words and experiences of Dunbar teachers and alumni stretching back for most of a century, but the book keeps wandering into school board politics and confusing family history. I felt like there was a better book hiding in the text, waiting for some skilled editing to bring it into focus.

One thing Stewart does succeed at, though, is showing how the civil rights movement stretches back long before the 1960s, and how the education provided by Dunbar and those few schools like it laid the groundwork for everything that followed. That's a good lesson, especially for those of us who weren't around at the time to learn it firsthand.
65 reviews
May 9, 2014
Sometimes too wordy with too much detail, but really an eye opener in many ways. I did not know how early civil rights issues began to come before the legislatures and judicial systems. I also learned the names of a lot of prominent Americans that I should have heard of long ago. So glad I found this book.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
181 reviews
June 6, 2015
A phenomenal chronological sketch of growth and decline of Dunbar High School. As a native Washingtonian, I felt like I could pinpoint various periods within the story.
368 reviews2 followers
January 17, 2014
The history related in this book is truly fascinating. I gained much insight into Washington DC’s unique history and enjoyed all the vignettes about the success of Dunbar alumni. As an educator myself, I found the roller-coaster story of the school both interesting and instructive. Unfortunately, I cannot just rate this amazing content; I have to give a rating to the book as a whole, reflecting both the content and the way it was delivered.
Knowing that Stewart is a trained journalist as well as having personal ties to the school through her parents, I had high hopes for the book and expected strong, engaging writing. However, I was disappointed. I felt that sometimes chapters were structured oddly in order include a gimmicky hook at the beginning. Transitions were not always effective or clear, and organizational decisions negatively impacted the fluidity of the text. Additionally, I felt that Stewart had trouble committing to a voice for the text. Unlike Rebecca Skloot, who made the difficult but intentional decision to make herself part of her The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Stewart waffled between referencing herself directly and trying to remove herself from the text. This struggle seemed also reflected in inconsistencies of objectivity. While most of the text strives to remain objective, allowing the facts to speak for themselves, Stewart seems unable to prevent herself from slipping into a subjective and opinionated style at times. I thought this undermined the impact of that facts themselves.
Finally, I thought the editing of this book was a travesty. Though not necessarily the author’s fault, the number of grammatical errors, poorly edited quotations, typos, and other mechanical mistakes was both distracting and disrespectful of the content, especially considering the level of adeptness with the English language early Dunbarites were expected to demonstrate. Stewart would have done well to have asked Dunbar alum Adelaide Cromwell to edit her manuscript rather than entrusting it to the incompetent editor at Lawrence Hill.
Overall, I’m very glad I read the book, and I thank Stewart for providing readers with such a comprehensive history of such a significant American institution. I just hope she’s awarded a 2nd edition so the text can be cleaned up and better reflect the standards of historic Dunbar.
95 reviews
September 22, 2017
According to my own family lore, Dunbar was THE best opportunity for a comprehensive, well-rounded education available to African-Americans in Washington, DC. (My father and other family members attended and graduated.) The caliber of teachers was equivalent to those in the best prep schools, colleges, and universities in the nation. The students who graduated from Dunbar attended just about every prestigious institution of higher learning in the world! They were groundbreakers in fields previously closed to those who were not white. (This alone requires that we examine the base myth of black intellectual inferiority.) The fact that such well educated people were not only academically successful but leaders in their chosen career fields defies racist premises. Unfortunately those myths still have a secure place within our society. It is perpetuated by those with a vested interest in making money off of the labors of others. Sadly, racial progress seems always followed by new and more sophisticated racist progress.

The story of Dunbar's coming apart parallel's the story of desegregation. With the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Ed, segregation was to be lawfully lifted. Unfortunately, this caused much of the strength of the black community to drift apart. Black economic power was diluted. Black education was subverted. Assimilation required sacrifices that may have been too much. Open doors for better income and employment opportunities are still very slow to follow 70years later.

The book is well written well researched. Oral histories and written documentation were enough support for this narrative style. It could use less background detail about the author's family connection or maybe a less heavy handed application of those details. For me it disrupted the flow of the narrative. I see the title as a double entendre of sorts.

Should anyone reading this have an interest in racism and its overarching effects, I recommend Ibram Kendi's book-Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
57 reviews3 followers
March 2, 2014
This narrative of the history of Dunbar high school in DC elicits more varied and strong emotion than most novels. Published just last year, Stewart's well-researched history covers the longest timeline possible about education for black students in the nation's capital. She depicts the human drama of hope, hard work, mistakes, futility, frustration, betrayal, and perseverance, letting the voices of the past and present speak in their own words.

The study of history can both inspire us by showing us people who overcame obstacles to accomplish great things; it can also serve as a warning, when we see how their work can be undone by idealists who just happened to guess wrong. For instance, I still can't wrap my head around how anyone looked at those 70s concrete parking garage buildings and thought them beautiful, or that building a school for 2400 students with flimsy dividers that didn't reach the ceiling -- rather than this crazy thing the geezers called "walls" -- would be a great way for students to learn and concentrate. Richer districts who jumped on the stupid train were able to switch out again pretty easily, but at Dunbar, mistakes get to play out for 40 years. It's kind of scary. Reading this made me ponder whether our generation will find true solutions to our education problems, or just make a bunch of weird decisions detached from reality that end up harming the next couple generations of students.
Profile Image for Christina.
1,144 reviews
August 12, 2013
I really enjoyed this non-fiction book by Alison Stewart (who you may remember from MTV News in the early '90s, or recognize now from CBS News and 60 Minutes). She takes us through the history of America's first black public high school, located in Washington DC, where her parents attended. It was established in 1870 and by the 1950s it was sending 80% of its student body to college. Some notable graduates include the first black member of a president's cabinet, the first black army general, and the creator of the modern blood bank. It was considered one of the best schools in the nation for African Americans. Unfortunately, the school has been on the decline for the past few decades because of education reform. There is new direction and hope though, as the new $122 million facility opens this fall. I loved reading about the inspiring faculty and got a really good history lesson on race issues and education policy in America.

I received this book from NetGalley for review purposes.
292 reviews
January 30, 2016
This was a really good book - well written, thoroughly researched. What I liked best was how it had a historical focus but went straight up through present day, going through the entire trajectory of Dunbar. Usually I'm not a big history person, because while I theoretically agree that it informs the present day I don't feel it emotionally, but in this case I thought the book did an excellent job connecting the history to the reality. The end was unbridled optimism combined with hilarious descriptions of gentrification ("Young blond women in Lululemon yoga pants are walking their Labradors" (305), "the harbinger of all things upwardly mobile, a Trader Joe's, is slated to open soon" (306)). I'm not sure the optimism was justified, but I will be doing some research to see what has happened since publication and bring my knowledge up to date! Any book that can make me do outside research deserves 5 stars.
Profile Image for reneeNaDaCherry.
2,304 reviews1 follower
April 30, 2017
First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School

I had nothing but the best educational experiences, including the journalism program, at Dunbar Senior High School, my alma mata! This book is an excellent read about the founding educators insight and perseverance during a difficult time of change in our country's history. Knowledge is power and it's amazing that this book is available to be shared w/ future generations. It's a part of history that will forever be revered. A very good read with a lot of fond memories. I give this book the 5***** rating.
Profile Image for Emily.
133 reviews1 follower
February 16, 2014
Stewart writes candidly and personally about Dunbar - it is clear she feels she has a responsibility to tell its story. While I enjoyed how the book followed certain successful graduates and helped explain some of the failures that led to Dunbar II's eventual decline, First Class only touches on what seems to be a much larger topic - how DC was not successfully desegregated. It might not be a fault of the book that it left me wanting to learn more, but it certainly seemed like I couldn't understand if what happened at Dunbar was part of a pattern, or if it was a unique case.
235 reviews
October 24, 2013
There is so much interesting about this book. I feel like I know so much more about Washington, DC then I did before. The writing is kind of uneven. It is intended to be a chronological history of the school but it often takes detours to tell the stories of some of the graduates. Both things are really interesting but the book seems kind of choppy at times. Overall I am really glad I read the book and feel like I learned a lot of things I never would have known if I hadn't read it.
Profile Image for Katrina.
972 reviews
November 23, 2013
I enjoyed reading the history of Dunbar High School. The history of the physical architecture of the buildings of Dunbar High was especially interesting and somewhat shocking.Who could have possibly thought that classrooms without walls would have been a good idea?! The demise of the school's stellar reputation is both depressing and now seems quite hopeless. I'm glad someone wrote a book about this institution.
Profile Image for Susan Prince.
31 reviews
April 29, 2015
My mom went to Dunbar back in the 40s, so I was excited to read the book. While the stories of the students and teachers from the past were very interesting - the book could have really used a good editor.

So many times the story wandered all over the place I lost track of what the original point was.

And SO many typos. Yikes.

Still my mom is reading it now and I'm looking forward to talking with her about her memories.
Profile Image for Caitlin.
396 reviews
April 1, 2016
Very well written. My only "complaint"... I walked into this book expecting more of a story-telling experience, like The Warmth Of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. There are many good stories here, and important ones. But this also is more statistic based. Chapter 4 was particularly tough for me. But, this is really good, and an important book.
Profile Image for BRan.
54 reviews
August 5, 2017
An absolutely wonderful book!! Took a little time to read because it's slow and filled with a lot of history. I put it down a few times. Definitely worth the time and will provide information you may not know.
6 reviews2 followers
June 21, 2018
Fantastic Story & history!

The story of Dunbar high school is encouraging. I never knew it was the first Blackhigh school in the US not did I know about all of the amazing folks who graduated from Dr. Charles Drew to Elizabeth Catlett. I thoroughly enjoyed the detailed reporting.
95 reviews1 follower
November 8, 2013
very good book about Dunbar and the history of education in the African-American community.
108 reviews1 follower
November 17, 2013
Was expecting so much more form this book. The second half of the book was more contemporary. Not well written and seemed very disjointed.
30 reviews
October 3, 2013
This book captured the essence of an era of excellence in educating African Americans. The chronology of Dunbar from its creation to its demise is a fascinating read.
10 reviews2 followers
January 11, 2014
Fantastic book. A must read for anyone working on education reform or who wants to understand the real history of DC
218 reviews1 follower
September 17, 2014
Interesting read about the history of DC and this school.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews

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