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First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School Hardcover – August 1, 2013

4.7 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In 1870, the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth became the first black public high school in the nation, a prized accomplishment for Washington, D.C., as free people of color and newly freed slaves stretched the boundaries that still remained in postslavery America. Later renamed Dunbar High, the school became famous for its highly accomplished graduates, many of whom were the first blacks to enter Ivy League schools and break down barriers in a wide range of professions, from the law to medicine. For more than 80 years, the school maintained legendarily high standards in a segregated school system and developed fiercely loyal, solidly middle-class alumni. But desegregation and changing demographics slowly eroded the reputation of the school until it became just another inner-city school with low achievement and high drop-out rates. Drawing on interviews with alumni, teachers, and students, Stewart recalls the storied history of Dunbar, its part in the tumultuous politics of the D.C. school system, and current efforts to reconstruct the school and revive its former glory. A fascinating account of the legacy of a legendary school. --Vanessa Bush

Review

“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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press; School edition (August 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1613740093
  • ISBN-13: 978-1613740095
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #657,730 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Goose bumps is what I first felt when I read the book. I am on my second reading. My father Charles Oliver Colbert, graduated from Dunbar in 1946. My grandmother lived on First Street N.W. directly across from the school. Mary Gibson Hundley a neighbor taught French, English and Latin at Dunbar 1920 - 1954 and helped many graduates go to Ivy League colleges (Radciffe College has her papers). My father insisted I visit Prof. Hundley on Sunday's when we would visit my grandmother who still lived in the house on First Street. Mrs. Hundley lived on First Street a few blocks up. She wrote a very moving story of Dunbar - The Dunbar Story 1870-1955. Alison seems to capture the very essence of the school and what it meant. It was painful to read about the failed attempt to save the school as my father and a group of his classmates (yes they were that close until the very day they died) worked relentlessly to save the school. When that failed, many put on black caps black pants, went down in the middle of the night ( I drove ) to get a bricks from the soon to be debris of the old school. We kept a full wheelbarrel of Dunbar bricks in our basement for many years. That said a lot about the love and spirit of the school. Because of Mrs. Hundley and my Dad I went to Mount Holyoke and the Sorbonne and became a Fellow at a top business school. The talent the school produced is too long to list but should be. Maybe a pull out so we can share with our kids. Like Evelyn Boyd Granville, Ph.D (Yale) - second woman to obtain a Ph.D. in mathematics - the list goes on and on. Alison captured the talent, the drive and the essence so well it was a page turner and huge motivator. The book will be an inspiration to all the young people in my life. I hope to purchase many more and share with them so they will be as inspired and hopefully motivated as the students and professionals she profiles.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ms. Stewart's study of this legendary high school not only gives insight into the institution that produced so many legendary people, but can also be read as the story of American education as a whole. It is a welcome vacation from the heated polemics of today's education debates.

I ordered an advanced copy and it lived up to all of my expectations.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Readers can draw inspiration from Dunbar's proud history and the accomplishments of its illustrious alumni. They can also learn from Stewart's analysis of how Dunbar succeeded, why it fell, and perhaps what we can expect and demand from the school as its faculty and students move into a new building, a move that has been labeled a "New Era Dawning." Stewart tells a balanced story that traces one school's journey through decades of education policy. In the process, she offers a clear lesson on the dangers that poisonous politics pose to student learning.
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Format: Hardcover
Buying this for my daughter who is a teacher. I will read it too, as the content is compelling. I would love to see this made into a movie to see it reach the masses.
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Alison Stewart's excellent new book First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School, tells the story of a groundbreaking educational institution born in Washington, DC as a result of a unique set of circumstances and later hobbled by home rule politics, social class conflicts, and racial desegregation without integration. Ms. Stewart, an award-winning journalist who has worked as an anchor and reporter for several major commercial TV networks, as well as NPR and PBS, and whose parents graduated from Dunbar in the 1940s, uses Dunbar as a lens for examining the history of education in Washington, DC. The book covers three distinct eras: First, from 1807-1954, a detailed history of African-American education in Washington, DC and how Dunbar became America's first African-American public high school; second, beginning with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe decisions, a transitional period in the years surrounding school integration; and third, Dunbar's post-1960 full transformation to the neighborhood school it is today, struggling with the challenges of urban education. As someone whose family history in Washington, DC dates to the post-civil war 1800s, I learned new facts about DC's history and was struck by the irony of Dunbar alums arguing for desegregation at the Supreme Court and then seeing their prestigious and beloved alma mater fray as the unconstitutional system of segregation was dismantled. I was moved by the heartbreaking stories of students and educators trying to honor Dunbar's past and simultaneously create a present and future that will allow the school to once again become a launching pad for great careers.
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Format: Hardcover
As a Washingtonian both the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar and the high school that bears his name are known to me as there are to many city residents. But the story that is certainly not well known is the one the chronicles how extraordinarily difficult the birth of a primary and secondary educational system for American-African children was in the District of Columbia. Alison Stewart's book is ostensibly about the creation of Dunbar High School, the first such institution for African-American students in the United States. But it is really about the journey that America has taken in the past one hundred years, about a multi-generational cast of citizens, mostly African-American but also white, who made this country start to live up to the lofty rhetoric on which it was founded. In telling that story Stewart has assembled a wondrous array of mini-biographies that convey the story of both a school and a nation. The writing is superb and the book has a particular timeliness. The past 40 years have not been kind ones for the school. The excellence it knew during much of its history has given way to an institution that's been under siege, beset by the familiar problems of poverty, familial stress and other social ills. Stewart deals deftly with bitterly ironic role that Jim Crow-era laws played in giving the school such a fine teaching staff for the first half of its life and how integration changed the nature of both the staff and student body at Dunbar. The third iteration of Dunbar is to open in just a few weeks. In the new $120 million building is the hope that the school, in a rapidly transforming urban environment, will rise Phoenix-like to resume its long-dormant role as a citadel of academic excellence.

The quality of the research is on display at all times, as is a sensitivity to the subject. Stewart's parents attended Dunbar. Please avail yourself of this excellent piece of scholarship and journalism.
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