D.C.’s segregated schools

We sometimes think of D.C. as a liberal progressive city, but its history involves as much segregation as the South. Public schools in D.C. were segregated up until Brown v Board of Education (and D.C.’s similar case Bolling v. Sharpe) in 1954.

Here are some of these schools, whose beautiful exteriors mask the harsh realities of their history.

The Sumner School

The Sumner School, at 1201 17th St. NW, was built in 1872 and named after abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. Sumner tried, and failed, to ban segregated schools and other segregated public facilities in the District. The building served as a school and the headquarters of the Superintendent for Colored Public High Schools.

The building was designed by architect Adolph Cluss, who also designed the Smithsonian’s Art and Industries Building, Calvary Baptist Church, Eastern Market, and the Franklin School.  Since the 1980’s, it has been a museum and houses the archives of the D.C. school system. 

Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School

Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School, at 1050 21st Street, N.W., was built in 1868 as a school for both recently freed African-Americans and African-Americans who had been free for generations. It was considered the first school for African-Americans that had facilities that were comparable to those available in white schools.

It was named after Pennsylvania Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. When the school was closed in 2008, it was the oldest school building still in use in D.C. Amy Carter attended the school while her father was President.

It has recently been completely remodernized and opened in 2020 as a city-wide school for early education (ages 0-5) for children at risk.

William Syphax School

The William Syphax School, at 1360 Half St. SW, was built in 1904. William Syphax was the first head of the Colored Schools of Washington, and he fought for a unified school system. During his term, he supervised the building of the Charles Sumner School and the Thaddeus Stevens School.

The building was used as a school up until 1994. In 2005, it was acquired by the non-profit developer Manna, and turned into affordable condo units as Syphax Village.

Birney School

The school, at 2427 MLK Jr Avenue, was built in 1901 as the James G. Birney Elementary School (the adjacent original building for the school was built in 1889 and torn down in 1914).  It was the first public school for African-Americans in the Hillsdale area, and was named for James Birney, a white abolitionist from Kentucky.

The school was closed in the late 1980’s.  In 2005, it was renovated and became the home of the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school.

Alexander Crummell School

The Crummell School was built in 1911. It was named after Alexander Crummell, an African-American scholar, educator, and ordained Episcopal minister in the late 1800’s.

The building was designed by Snowdon Ashford, the city’s municipal architect. It closed in 1977, and for a period served as a bus parking lot. The community wants it renovated as public space, but the city’s plans are not determined as of now.

Military Road School

The Military Road School was established in 1864 to educate freed African-American children. It was constructed near the Fort Stevens barracks, which was considered one of the safer areas for freed African-Americans to live. The original building was torn down and replaced in 1912 by a building designed by D.C.’s municipal architect, Snowden Ashford. The school was closed in 1954 after public schools were forced to integrate. The building, at 1375 Missouri Avenue NW, is currently used by the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School.

Grimke School

The Grimke School, at 1923 Vermont Avenue NW, was built in 1887 as the Phelps Colored Vocational School. It was renamed the Grimke School in 1934 after Archibald Grimke, who had been born into slavery in 1849. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and become an activist and diplomat, and the head of the NAACP for D.C.

After many years of contention about its future use, the school is now being converted into a mixed-use space, including some office, condo, and art spaces. The African American Civil War Museum has moved to one side of the building.

Bolling v Sharpe

While Brown v Board of Education is the school desegregation case everyone is familiar with, a similar case started in D.C. a year earlier and was eventually combined into the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown.

In 1950 Gardner Bishop, a local activist, led a few African American students to view the new whites-only John Phillip Sousa High School, and later asked the school if they could admit those students and was denied. The Sousa school had great facilities and Bishop, the parents of the students, and a lawyer they went to, Charles Houston, decided to fight for an equally-good school to be built for African-American students. Houston died shortly thereafter, and his partner James Nabrit, Jr., a law professor at Howard, took over. Nabrit and the parents then decided that instead of asking for an equally-good school to be built, the goal should be to fight for desegregation of the entire school system.

The case was filed in 1951 in the U.S. District Court, as Bolling v Sharpe. The plaintiffs were the students who had been denied entrance to the Sousa School, among them Spottswood Thomas Bolling. Sharpe was the head of the Board of Education. The case failed at the District Court but went up to the Supreme Court and was ruled on in combination with Brown in 1954. Nabrit later became president of Howard University, and deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

February is Black History Month. For more information and celebrations about this month, check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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  1. I love my city, Washington DC. Never lived anywhere else. This history lesson about the schools built for our race inspired me so, so very much. I attended Syphax Elementary in the 1950s. Very exciting g reading. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading this, and interesting about your attending Syphax!

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