May 1, 1865, the first public school in the District of Columbia for colored children was opened, insufficient funds causing delay until that time. In 1867 the number of public schools increased to 5, with 7 teachers, and 450 facilities for teaching kindergarten, music, drawing, domestic art, domestic science, physical culture, and manual training; a school for tubercular pupils, a fresh air school, and schools for the atypical, incorrigible, and speech correction; 2 vocational schools, 2 junior high school, 1 manual training school, 1 academic high school including a department for business practice with accredited courses, 1 normal school, 22,133 pupils, 791 officers and teachers, and over $1,000,000.


November 14, 1870, the high school for the education of colored youth was organized as a "Preparatory High School" in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. The high school was organized with 1 teacher and 15 students. At this time the colored school system included 64 schools, (not buildings) 66 teachers, and 4,964 pupils. The first class would have graduated in 1875, but in order to supply the great demand for teachers at that time, the members of this class and the next succeeding class were appointed to teach before completing the prescribed course of study. As a result of this action of the Board of Trustees, the first class graduated on June 7, 1877, in the assembly hall at Sumner School, with 11 members, 3 male and 8 female. Miss Fannie M. Costin, a veteran teacher now in the Washington schools, was valedictorian, and the late Honorable Frederick Douglas made the address to the class. The faculty numbered 3 teachers including the Principal, and 94 was the total High School enrollment.


In September, 1871, the High School was moved to Stevens building, with Miss Mary Jane Patterson as Principal. From September, 1872 to June, 1877, the High School was located in the Sumner building, and during the first year of this period Prof. Richard T. Greener served as Principal. In September, 1873, Miss Mary Jane Patterson again was made Principal, and held the position until 1884.

In September, 1877, the High School was moved to the Minor building, where it remained until June, 1891. In September, 1884, Prof. Francis L. Cardozo was made Principal, and so served until June, 1896.


Drew W. S. Montgomery became principal in 1896 followed by Judge Robert H. Terrell in 1899. Between 1901 and 1916, three other outstanding educational leaders served as principals:Anna J. Cooper (1901 - 1906), William T. S. Jackson (1906 - 1909), and Edward C. Williams (1901 - 1916).

The Commissioners of the District of Columbia on January 17, 1916 renamed the high school in honor of the famous poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Garnet C. Wilkinson became principal of the newly named Dunbar High School in 1916. In 1921, Walter L. Smith became principal and during his tenure, the National Honor Society of Secondary Schools chartered our chapter.

Legacy of Dunbar Video
Phil Portlock, Class of 1959

Walter L. Smith held the position for 22 years (1921-1943). Harold Haynes became principal in 1943. When Mr. Haynes became assistant superintendent, Charles S. Lofton, a graduate of Dunbar High School, became principal in February 1948 - 1964. Howard F. Bolden became principal in January 1965 - 1970. Phyllis Beckwith became acting principal in February 1970 and principal in 1971. Dr. Thomas Harper succeeded her in 1977.

In September 1982, District of Columbia Public School opened five career-focused high schools. Dunbar was selected as the site for the Pre-Engineering Program. In December 1984, when Dr. Harper became assistant superintendent of the High School Division, Dr. Eva R. Rousseau, a Dunbar graduate, became principal.


In February 1996, when Dr. Rousseau became the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Director of Employee and Labor Relations, Ms. Judith C. Richardson became principal in 1996 - 2002. Mr. Reginald Burke served as interim Principal from November 2002 to August 2003. In August 2003, Dr. Harriett F. Kargbo became principal and served to 2008. Prior to her appointment, Dr. Kargbo was an assistant principal at Dunbar. R Gerald Austin was appointed interim acting principal for the 2008 - 2009 school year.

In 2008 - 2009 District of Columbia Public Schools partnered with the Friends of Bedford, Inc an Educational Management Company headed by George E. Leonard, to restructure Dunbar High School. In July of 2009 The Friends of Bedford selected Stephen D. Jackson, former principal of Mount Vernon High School in New York, to be the principal at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. In June of 2015, Abdullah A. Zaki II, former principal of Kelly Miller Middle School, was appointed as the next principal of Dunbar High School

In the years of Dunbar's existence, our graduates have achieved many outstanding accomplishments. Our objective is to create a learning environment that will empower all of our students to pursue career, technical, and academic excellence. Our guidance and college preparatory program is carefully designed to help students reach high expectations. In all parts of the United States, and even abroad, there are Dunbar graduates making significant contributions to society.

*Excerpts from "Historical Sketch", J.C. Wright - Class of 1924. Documented at Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives. Archives of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia: Washington, DC

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