Graduates of this same school pioneered as the first black in many places. These included the first black man to graduate from Annapolis, the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from an American institution, the first black federal judge, the first black general, the first black Cabinet member and, among other notables, a doctor who became internationally renowned for his work in developing the use of blood plasma.
How could all of this come to an abrupt end? Like many disasters, it began with good intentions and arbitrary assumptions. When Chief Justice Earl Warren declared in the landmark 1954 case of “Brown v. Board of Education” that racially separate schools were “inherently unequal,” Dunbar was a living refutation of that assumption.
A higher percentage of Dunbar graduates went on to college than the percentage at any white public high school in Washington. But what do facts matter when there is heady rhetoric and crusading zeal?
Racial polarization, turmoil
There is no question that racially segregated schools in the South provided an inadequate education for blacks. But the assumption that racial “integration” was the answer led to years of racial polarization and turmoil over busing, with little, if any, educational improvement.
For D.C., the end of segregation led to a political compromise, in which all schools became neighborhood schools. Dunbar, which had been accepting outstanding black students from anywhere in the city, could now accept only students from the neighborhood in which it was located.
Virtually overnight, Dunbar became a typical ghetto school. As unmotivated, unruly and disruptive students flooded in, Dunbar teachers began moving out and many retired. More than 80 years of academic excellence simply vanished into thin air.
Nobody, black or white, mounted any serious opposition. “Integration” was the cry of the moment, and it drowned out everything else. Today, there is a new Dunbar High School building, costing more than $100 million. But its graduates go on to college at only about half the rate of Dunbar graduates in earlier and poorer times. Politics can deliver costly “favors,” even when it cannot deliver quality education.