In the fall of 1968 Valerie Bell Youmans started her junior year at Wilson High School, bused from DC’s Petworth neighborhood following a federal court case that paved the way for desegregation of the Northwest DC school. Just a few miles away, Blanche Smith was a senior that fall at Dunbar, her neighborhood high school in Truxton Circle.
Youmans recalls “being terrified” when she learned that she’d be transferring from Roosevelt High School on 13th Street NW to Wilson, a school west of Rock Creek Park where most of the students were white.
Smith, meanwhile, remembers walking to school from her home at 4th and M streets NW, meeting up along the way with friends who also attended Dunbar.
Both native Washingtonians, Youmans and Smith have shared their high school memories as participants in projects funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC (HumanitiesDC). Sponsored annually by the group, this year’s DC Community Heritage Projects — “1968: The Journey 50 Years Later” — highlight the events of that pivotal year and their impact on the city’s residents.
The Wilson and Dunbar projects were among eight honored last month at a reception hosted by HumanitiesDC at the Charles Sumner School on 17th Street NW. The projects explore the tragedy and triumph, artists and influence, and music and moments of 1968 that would change the world, according to the organization’s website. HumanitiesDC awarded grants of $2,150 to Wilson and $2,500 to Dunbar for their projects.
In her remarks at the Sept. 11 event, Humanities DC executive director Joy Ford Austin described the projects as a “proud effort to commemorate 1968 in the District … letting us walk in the footsteps of so many Washingtonians and share in the sadness and sorrow” of those times. “Fifty years from now, people will say, ‘They remembered.’”
A time of upheaval
As part of the Wilson project, organizers recruited alumni via email and social media to participate in a panel discussion that was videotaped at the high school. Held last June in the school’s library, the event brought together a racially diverse group of six alumni who attended Wilson in the late 1960s — two from the neighborhood and four from other parts of the city. The project also includes written and recorded oral histories of alumni. The Wilson Parent Teacher Student Organization tweeted this week that the discussion will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, in the school’s library.
The 1968-69 school year opened against the backdrop of social unrest sparked by the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which led to four days of rioting in DC that spring.
The year before, Julius W. Hobson had filed a lawsuit on behalf of his children against the DC Public Schools superintendent and the District’s Board of Education, alleging that the segregation of city schools denied African-American and poor students the right to educational opportunities enjoyed by white and more affluent students.
DC Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright’s decision in favor of Hobson led to the expansion of Wilson’s boundaries, drawing a more racially and economically diverse group of students.
Youmans was one of about 50 students who transferred in the fall of 1968 from Roosevelt to Wilson. She recalls that after the court decision, “if you lived on the side of Georgia [Avenue] toward 14th and 16th streets, you transferred to Wilson. If you lived on the other side of Georgia, you went to Roosevelt.”
She traveled to her new school on a special bus along with other students from Roosevelt. For their gym classes, the students were told they could continue wearing the green uniforms they had worn at their old school. But, Youmans says, one of the Wilson teachers “picked on us” and “called out” the Roosevelt students for wearing their old uniforms.
Youmans complained to her father, who went to Wilson one day and confronted the teacher. She says the teacher opened the conversation by telling Youmans’ father that she was not a racist.
“I remember my father telling me that if anyone tells you, without being asked, that they’re not a racist,” that’s a problem, she says.
At Wilson, Youmans found herself in classes with white students for the first time. Youmans, whose older brother had attended American University on a track scholarship, was thinking about going to college herself. Some Wilson teachers were dismissive of her aspirations, she said.
But she recalls positive interactions as well, with an African-American faculty member who taught English at Wilson becoming a role model for Youmans and other black students.
Youmans credits her father, who owned an upholstery shop at 14th Street and Spring Road NW, with giving her the “purpose and strength” to persevere at Wilson. She recalls that when the riots broke out on 14th Street, her father drove to his shop, where he placed a “Soul Brother” sign on the door so the rioters wouldn’t loot his store.
The Wilson alumna describes herself and her African-American friends as “proud black girls. We came into our own at Wilson. But we also made white friends, and when we had our 20th reunion, it was so good to see them.”
She ran track and, like her brother, applied to American University, where she studied for two years. Later, she earned her bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University, where she has worked for 29 years, for the past 27 as the assistant to the dean of undergraduate admissions.
Youmans says that attending Wilson “turned out to be a good thing. It really opened my eyes … even though I didn’t see it at the time. If I had stayed at Roosevelt, my life would have been different. I probably wouldn’t have gone on to college.”
Blazing a trail
Dunbar alumna Blanche Smith, who serves as director of her alma mater’s project, says that she hopes to raise awareness about the significance of Dunbar’s role as the nation’s first high school for African-American students. Founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth, it had a reputation for decades of offering a rigorous curriculum and excellent faculty for black students.
At a panel discussion being organized by Smith, about eight Dunbar graduates will share their memories of the unrest that surrounded the school and the neighborhood following King’s death. The discussion is tentatively scheduled for this month. The project will also include an exhibit featuring photos of the 1968 civil unrest, a digital collection for the Dunbar Alumni Federation website, and the screening of a documentary about King produced by photographer and Dunbar alumnus Phil Portlock.
The project includes a set of “knowledge cards” with key facts about panelists that Smith hopes will inspire Dunbar students to think about how they can contribute to the community.
Smith says at the time of the riots “you could taste the tear gas from H Street” in her neighborhood. Dunbar closed for a couple of days, and students upon returning found members of the National Guard stationed at the school. Smith recalls that her church — Vermont Avenue Baptist, where she still worships — distributed food to families affected by the violence.
Smith, a member of a national ecumenical Christian movement known as Church Women United, says the riots and the years she spent at Dunbar “set in my mind the love and need for social justice advocacy.”
During that time, she played in the Dunbar band, participated in theater productions, and served as captain of the cheerleaders and co-editor of the school newspaper. In her last year, she was president of the senior class.
The 1968 project enables us “to create situations where both students and the community can see that Dunbar is ingrained in the nation’s history,” says Smith. “We need to make certain that we not only celebrate [that history] but also live in a way that improves on it.”