2.28.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 115

Here are some excerpts from a book I recently read, "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School," by Alison Stewart and Melissa Harris-Perry:



Over time, more and more schools were formed in black churches and in private homes with progressive Northerners serving as teachers. Among them were Mrs. Mary Billings’s School, St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls, the McCoy School, and the Ambush School, to name a few. This shadow education system was necessary because, very simply, the original law requiring public schools in the District of Columbia clearly stated that the funds would support public schools for whites only.



In 1867, less than two decades removed from the active Washington, DC, slave trade, colored Washingtonians gained the right to vote. And vote they did. By the end of the decade, seven colored men had been elected to the District’s city council. The laws began to change. The council passed an ordinance that declared that “any quiet and orderly person” who was “well behaved and respectable” should be welcome in establishments, taverns, restaurants, shops, and concerts in the District regardless of race—and all people should be treated the same. In reality this didn’t happen, but for a time these laws were on the books. In the same moment, the city elected Mayor Sayles J. Bowen, the most radical of Republicans, a white man who believed wholeheartedly in integration.



Paul Laurence Dunbar was an intelligent and gifted man who, despite his original station as the son of slaves, persevered and became the best and the first of his kind in his field. He represented what the founders of the colored high school dreamed for their own children and their race: success through determination and hard work. Not only would the new colored high school in Washington be named after Dunbar, it would also take on one of his poems as its core value, its guiding principle, its mantra, and its official motto. On page eight of his very first book, Oak and Ivy—the one he self-financed through elevator sales—is a poem called “Keep A-Pluggin’ Away” that begins: 

I’ve a humble little motto 
That is homely, though it’s true,— 
Keep a-pluggin’ away. 
It’s a thing when I’ve an object 
That I always try to do,— 
Keep a-pluggin’ away. 
When you’ve rising storms to quell, 
When opposing waters swell, 
It will never fail to tell,— 
Keep a-pluggin’ away. 
If the hills are high before 
And the paths are hard to climb, 
Keep a-pluggin’ away. 
And remember that successes 
Come to him who bides his time,— 
Keep a-pluggin’ away. 
From the greatest to the least, 
None are from the rule released. 
Be thou toiler, poet, priest, 
Keep a-pluggin’ away. … 

To this day, ninety-year-old Dunbar graduates can recite those lines by heart.



The first three Negro women to get PhDs were all connected to Dunbar: Dr. Sadie Tanner graduated from there in 1915, Dr. Georgiana Simpson taught there, and Dr. Eva Dykes was both a Dunbar graduate and teacher. Dr. Tanner received the first doctorate of the three—but how that came to be is a bit of a funny story. Dr. Tanner was first because the University of Chicago held its ceremony in the morning. Dr. Simpson got hers the same day from the University of Pennsylvania, but in the afternoon. Yet Dr. Dykes was actually the first of the three to complete all the requirements and earn the distinction—Radcliffe simply had its official ceremony a few weeks later.
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