Monday, February 14, 2011

Black History Month Feature: What's In a Name? Profiles of the Trailblazers

Publication Documents the History of DC's Public and Public Charter School Names

The Women of the Dove Foundation has received several grants from the Humanities Council over the last few years to produce a remarkable history of the District's Public and Public Charter School names. Washington, DC has had a substantial African American population since it was founded, and it was one of the first cities to feature publicly funded schools for black students. Because of this unique history, Whats In a Name: Profiles of the Trailblazers, reveals a strikingly deep, multi-layered story.

There are schools all around the country bearing the names of figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Benjamin Franklin, and their DC counterparts are all featured in Women of the Dove's survey, but Washington's schools have also carried the monikers of Benjamin Banneker, Francis Lewis Cardozo, and Alexander Crummell. Women of the Dove has rightly observed the necessity of preserving not only the name, but the person whose words and deeds earned them that memorial.

Most Washingtonians know that Banneker surveyed the original boundary lines of the Capital City, but Banneker was also an inventor, mathematician, astronomer, and is recognized in What's In a Name? as “one of the first African Americans to gain distinction in science.” Cardozo was the first African American to hold statewide office when he became the Secretary of State for South Carolina during the Reconstruction era. He later became principal of Washington, DC's Colored Preparatory High school, where he introduced curricula that would transform the school into one of the best for African Americans in the country. Crummell was the son of a slave father and a freeborn mother, who became an eminent educator and clergyman. A professor at Howard University, he founded the American Negro Academy, an organization that encouraged African American scholars and writers to publish and disseminate their works.

Alexander Crummell School in Ivy City, Washington, DC
Recovering the human story behind building names is only one layer of the historical narrative explored by Women of the Dove. Using the names as entre, their publication examines the nuances of Washington's segregated school system, and explores the changes it experienced after the 1954 Bolling v. Sharpe Supreme Court decision that held segregation to be unconstitutional in the federally controlled District of Columbia (Brown v. Board of Education was decided on the the same day). What's in a Name provides a brief history of each school, often characterized by its status as a formerly all-black or all-white, and what happened to it after integration.

The entire publication is available online through the DC Digital Museum. Look up your school, you parents' school, your kids' school; you may be surprised at where the name above the door actually comes from. Read the histories of all the schools to begin to piece together the history of Washington, DC's storied public school system. Let us know what you think. Leave a comment about the publication or about your own experience in DC Public Schools past or present.

For more information on the history of segregated schools in Washington, DC, check out Wide Enough for Our Ambitions, an online exhibit curated by Kim Roberts for last year's Washington, DC Big Read.

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