Friday, January 25, 2013

Reporting from the SE Public Library

Today, I am working on the Arthur Capper Public Housing Oral History Project here at the Southeast Public Library. The library is exceeding pleasant, as usual. I am surprised by how bustling it is today. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in the New Orleans Public Library downtown, which had very few visitors. The Southeast Public Library is a great place to work, especially with the free wifi and the good cheer. Thanks to the wonderful librarians for making this such an inclusive space!

During my research on website design, I happened upon an excellent website "Wide Enough for Our Ambition: D.C.'s Segregated African-American Schools (1807-1954)." The website contains photos and history of these schools in each ward. Ward 6 hosted the first private school for African-American children! The website starts:
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...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.
Thanks to all those who make schools and libraries such wonderful institutions!


  1. Some of the African American public schools, particularly the M Street High School, later Dunbar, were awesome despite racism, crowding and shortage of funds. However, the web site quoted above gives a misleading picture of the establishment of public schools here. For about the first forty years, they (both of them) were funded by fees derived from business licenses and city lotteries, not taxes. They were free only for paupers and became known as pauper, or charity, schools. Everyone else paid tuition. I've read that in about 1858 the city finally levied a tax of $1 per year on every white male to fund the schools, and then after that began funding based on property assessments. The schools were pretty bad. Eventually the city tried a system whereby the children taught each other and made their own supplies with a single adult teacher overseeing the process for, say, 150 kids. Most people educated their own children by tutor or private schools, if they educated them at all. A few of the private schools accepted both whites and blacks.

    Also, the first African American private school, the Bell school, was right here in SE Capitol Hill, not NE, approximately on the site of today's X Park.


  2. Thanks, Sandy, for this great information. Well, I am a really bad blogger because it takes me forever to respond to anything. This was particularly amazing: "Eventually the city tried a system whereby the children taught each other and made their own supplies with a single adult teacher overseeing the process for, say, 150 kids." Think of what the M Street High School could have done with funds equal to other schools! I encourage you to forward this information to the DC Humanities Council or to the website organizers, since it would help improve it.


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