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Combining a fascinating history of the first U.S. high school for African Americans with an unflinching analysis of urban public-school education today, First Class explores an underrepresented and largely unknown aspect of black history while opening a discussion on what it takes to make a public school successful. In 1870, in the wake of the Civil War, citizens of Washington, DC, opened the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the first black public high school in the United States; it would later be ...
Combining a fascinating history of the first U.S. high school for African Americans with an unflinching analysis of urban public-school education today, First Class explores an underrepresented and largely unknown aspect of black history while opening a discussion on what it takes to make a public school successful. In 1870, in the wake of the Civil War, citizens of Washington, DC, opened the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the first black public high school in the United States; it would later be renamed Dunbar High and would flourish despite Jim Crow laws and segregation. Dunbar attracted an extraordinary faculty: its early principal was the first black graduate of Harvard, and at a time it had seven teachers with PhDs, a medical doctor, and a lawyer. During the school’s first 80 years, these teachers would develop generations of highly educated, successful African Americans, and at its height in the 1940s and ’50s, Dunbar High School sent 80 percent of its students to college. Today, as in too many failing urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students are barely proficient in reading and math. Journalist and author Alison Stewart—whose parents were both Dunbar graduates—tells the story of the school’s rise, fall, and possible resurgence as it reopens a new, state-of-the-art campus.
“In First Class, Alison Stewart skillfully chronicles the rise and fall of Dunbar High School, America’s first black public high school. Recalling the institution's extraordinary legacy and the lives of its accomplished alumni—her own parents included—Stewart will convince you that there’s cause for hope, and that the school’s brightest days may still be ahead.” —President Bill Clinton
“The US Army’s first black general. The first black federal judge. The first black cabinet secretary. If you pull the thread that ties together these (and so many other) pioneers in African American achievement, you find the story of Dunbar High School. Alison Stewart uncovers the hidden history of a great American institution, and shows us the moving, herculean, human effort it took to build it in the first place, and to rebuild it now. What an amazing story—what a great book.” —Rachel Maddow, author of Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, and host of The Rachel Maddow Show
“Many of the legal minds behind school desegregation learned their sense of self and sense of determination at Dunbar High School. First Class explains how Dunbar produced extraordinary men and women who could be role models for any child of any era.” —Hill Harper, actor and author of Letters to a Young Brother
“A gifted journalist, Alison Stewart tells this remarkable story with depth and insight. Meticulously researched and engagingly written, First Class does what great books should do: it finds universal meaning in particular places. In Stewart, Dunbar’s complicated life and times have found a brilliant biographer." —Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson and the White House
“First Class is first rate—the extraordinary story of a historic school and its remarkable students and teachers. With great style and real care, Alison Stewart weaves a wonderful tale of adversity, triumph, and overcoming.” —Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News
“[Author Alison] Stewart’s question, 'What will the newest incarnation of Dunbar be?' remains germane, especially as its new building is scheduled to open in fall 2013. Contemplating Dunbar’s history may offer answers.”—Publishers Weekly
"A well-reported, passionate study of the triggers for failure and success within American urban education."—Kirkus Reviews
"Stewart’s history of a single school also manages to tell the story of black DC, of school desegregation, and of education reform. One need not be a Washington native or a Dunbar grad to appreciate this thought-provoking and thoroughly pleasant history."—Library Journal, starred review
Posted December 1, 2013
I was hooked in the first chapter. Ms. Stewart has done a remarkable job with weaving history, politics, and sociology in such a familiar tone. Because of her familiarity with the intricate details of a unique continuum, I was able to ride the magic carpet to see my own history unfold. I am a Dunbar alumna, multi-generational Washingtonian who often wonders about the attitudes and disposition of my community. First Class reveals what happened in Washington, DC during the 19th and 20th centuries and how those events impacted our 21st century status. First Class was not just an excellent read, it was my personal journey. Alyson, you have my deepest gratitude. - C.T. McDonald
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Posted January 20, 2014