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This web exhibit looks at schools in Washington, D.C. for African-American children during segregation, and other institutions and individuals who affected the history of those schools. Beginning in 1804 with the establishment of public schools exclusively for white children, free African-Americans were taxed at the same rates as whites to subsidize schools where their own children were banned. In response, the first private school for African-American children was established on Capitol Hill in 1807. Our history begins there.
Over fifty years later, when Congress mandated that D.C. finally open public schools for African-American children in 1862—also paid for my municipal taxes—those tax dollars were distributed unevenly. For the rest of the segregated school system's history, African-American schools would be underfunded and overcrowded in comparison to white schools.
And yet these schools became a great source of local pride and a model for the rest of the nation. Washington, D.C. established the first high school in the country for African-American students in 1870. In the dual system's heyday, from approximately 1890 to 1930, D.C.'s Negro schools were considered the best in the United States.
In an essay in Opportunity Magazine published in 1928, Kelly Miller, a professor and administrator at Howard University wrote:
"The Washington Negro has the only complete school system in the country practically under his own control...The colored high and normal schools enroll over three thousand pupils above the eighth grade level. This number of secondary students cannot be approximated in any other city—not even New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, with a much larger total Negro population."
D.C. was also in the vanguard to end segregation in education. The Committee for School Desegregation met at the John Wesley A.M.E. church to map out legal strategies. The Bolling v. Sharpe case was filed in DC, one of four cases bundled together that eventually became Brown v. Board of Education. The cases were tried in the U.S. Supreme Court in this city in 1954. And the D.C. Board of Education voted to integrate the public schools only eight days after the Brown decision, effective less than four months later, making Washington schools the first in the nation to desegregate. Our history ends there, in 1954.
Today, the D.C. Public Schools administer 123 schools and learning centers. Approximately 85% of students are African-American.
Thanks to Kimberly Springle at the Sumner School Archives for her assistance, and to Marya McQuirter for her earlier research on D.C.'s segregated schools. For additional information, I recommend the rich resources of the Sumner School Archives, and Cultural Tourism D.C.'s African-American Heritage Trail.
—Kim Roberts, Curator
(Above Image Courtesy of the Scurlock Collection at the Smithsonian Institution)