Lecture byFirst Class. “Back to the Future-Lessons to be learned from Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School.”
The 1434th meeting of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences was held on Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 at 5 p.m. at the Whitney Center in Hamden. Some 30 members and their guests enjoyed wine and the lecture and some 20 people stayed for dinner.
The President, Dr. Gregory Tignor began the evening program by welcoming the audience to the 1434th meeting of the Academy.
He asked past President Dr. Ernest Kohorn to introduce the speaker for the newly instituted tradition of a five-minute biography of a Founding Father of the Academy. Dr. Kohorn said that Professor Wheeler was a member of long standing and a very valuable member of the Academy’s Council. He was also an internationally renowned emeritus professor of Physics at Yale. Because of his scientific interest in ceramics he had unearthed many hidden treasures at the Peabody Museum in New Haven. Professor Wheeler’ s subject was Benjamin Silliman.
Born in 1799 in Stratford to the American Revolutionary General Gold Sellek Silliman, Benjamin Silliman was a very influential member of the Academy during most of the 19th century. He entered Yale College at the age of 17, received an M.A. three years later, was a Yale college tutor and he was a lawyer, passing the bar at the age of 23. Yale’s President, Timothy Dwight, had $20,000 for 3 new professorships, beginning in 1793. In 1802 he asked Silliman to become a Natural Scientist. Silliman spent a year at Franklin’s institution the University of Pennsylvania, taking chemistry instructions from Professor Woodhouse. Silliman’s first lectures in Chemistry were held in 1804 in Yale College. The origin of the $20,000 resided in the Treaty of Paris of 1782 part 111. This specified that in the future all the states were to honor the charters made during the colonial period. But in Connecticut the clergy at Yale and the legal representatives could not agree on the nature of the support and governance of the college. A divorce was the solution. An agreement was made whereby Yale would receive $20,000 and the state would no longer have any monies due to Yale. The college agreed the state would have representation on the Yale Corporation forever in the persons of the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. During the year 1805-1806 Silliman went to England, Scotland and Holland with about $ 10,000 in order to purchase apparatus and books. He collected the bookseller’s fee. He founded the American Journal of Science in 1818, was an advisor to President Lincoln and a founding member of the National Academy of Science. He married Harriet Trumbull, the daughter of the Governor and lived to be 85. His statue stands outside the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. It is of note that his son’s research at the Yale Scientific School in 1854 was on fractional distillation, a technique developed by his father. His report on creating refined oil from Pennsylvania rock oil was a major factor in the development of the oil industry.
Dr. Tignor then introduced the main speaker for the evening, Journalist Alison Stewart, whose book “First Class “ had recently been published. Dr. Tignor noted that the school Ms. Stewart described was the school he had attended and from which he and his classmates had graduated and had become academic and business high achievers. Ms. Stewart’s talk was entitled, “Back to the Future: Lessons to be Learned from Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School”. Ms. Stewart’s talk was based on her book, First Class, from which she read extensively to augment her story. She said that the legacy of Dunbar was important. Few students today understood that before the Emancipation Proclamation it had been illegal to teach blacks. Myrtilla Miner, a strong white abolitionist, dedicated her life to teaching black women to teach. The Preparatory School for Colored Youth began in 1870 in a church basement with 4 students. Twenty years later, in 1892 the M Street School was established for “colored” children. Anna Cooper was its first Principal and she fought fiercely to keep the high standards of the curriculum, the teachers and the students. She believed strongly that education was “the birthright of humanity.” Congress appropriated $500,000, (half of what had been assigned for the Central High School,) and directed municipal architect, Snowden Ashford to design a building for a new black high school. Ashford built a school in the Tudor tradition, copying the style of Hampton Court Palace.
Dunbar High was opened in 1916, named after Paul Dunbar, the poet, whose motto was “never give up”. One critic later noted that, because of Ashford, “Washington’s black schools were separate but truly equal to their white counterparts.” The Principal continued to have high standards of behavior and had a very strict code of conduct, but the students knew how much their teachers wanted them to succeed. And they were lucky; they may not have been able to eat in white restaurants but they were certainly able to be educated to the highest standards. The architect of school desegregation and had argued the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education before the Supreme Court, Charles Hamilton Houston, was a graduate of Dunbar. In the 1970’s Dunbar lost its footing because so many black families left D.C. The city decided to build a new High School in its place and there was a great deal of discussion amongst the black community as to whether the old building should be torn down. Those in favor of dismantling the building won and in 1977 a new, modern building was erected, with all modern conveniences, such as a football field and a swimming pool. Ms. Stewart ended by saying that unfortunately the school has lost its belief in education and also its ethos of excellence. The students now achieve at the same level as the rest of the country.