About Us


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The history of Dunbar High School reflects the many shifts and changes in American public education. November 14, 1870, a public high school for African American students opened in the basement of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. This opening followed notable funding delays but commitment to the school remained. Leaders like William Syphax, George F.T. Cook, and William Wormley pushed for the funding to open a school. This first class of students at the school, known as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, had to teach the following class in order to meet the demand for teachers. The school may have started small, but its impact was great.

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The school moved often, shifting from the church basement to an elementary school, to Miner school, before landing at Charles Sumner School in 1972. However, the growing student body required more space. The school moved facilities again in 1892, opening its doors as M Street High School. Many of the school’s educators were Ivy League graduates and scholars in their own right. They gravitated to the high school after being prevented from pursuing their own areas of study. Jim Crow laws made it difficult, if not impossible, for highly qualified African Americans to access opportunities that were equal to their skills. Students thrived under their leadership, but the school once again was struggling with overcrowding and aging facilities.

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On October 2, 1916, the newly renamed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School opened for 1,117 students. The school continued to emphasize academic rigor, but also developed its own unique traditions and rituals. It developed a reputation for being selective, but also provided needed support to young people who were navigating a segregated system. In many ways the school was a haven, providing structure, role models, and purpose for students. In 1955 Bolling vs. Sharpe marked a change for students. With all eyes on the capitol, D.C. schools began the process of integration. Largely Dunbar’s student body appeared the same, with the same commitment to education, now serving neighborhood students.

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In 1970, the Dunbar changed buildings, this time to an Brutalist building designed by Bryant and Bryant, the largest black-owned architecture firm in the country. They developed an open concept, modern structure that was designed to look impenetrable. With the addition of a new football field the school became an athletic powerhouse especially in cross-country, track, and football. The Dunbar Crimson Tide made it to the citywide championships and dominated in the district.

Legacy of Dunbar Video
Phil Portlock, Class of 1959

The current home of Dunbar High School opened in 2013, designed by Perkins Eastman in partnership with Moody-Nolan, then one of the largest minority architecture firms in the country. The building was designed to meet platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) status, but also to reflect the school’s history and the goal of providing students with a quality learning environment that prepares them for the 21st century.


Over the decades some of the finest educators shaped Dunbar, including Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Jane Patterson, Carter G. Woodson, Mary Church Terrell. It’s current form reflects a new era in the school’s history, one that is mindful of the school’s past, present, and future. Through the many changes, Dunbar has remained dedicated to shaping young minds.


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Dunbar students were at the center of the challenges of their time, including lynching, scientific racism, World War II, women’s suffrage, desegregation, and gentrification. Because of the power of those educators, students emerged as scientists, military officers, U.S. senators, and lawyers. Some of its notable graduates include Vernon Davis, Nate Bussey, Vincent Gray, Elizabeth Catlett, Arrelious Benn, Edward Brooke III, Charles Hamilton Houston, Charles R. Drew, and Eleanor Holmes Norton. Today’s students walk in the footsteps of these icons.

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.

 Roll Tide!

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