Sheila Carson showed off her 1979 class ring outside Eastern High School (1700 East Capitol St. NE). Behind her, the school’s noted marching band stood at attention, having just finished a performance with the Lady Gems dance team. Clusters of people in white and blue exclaimed joyfully as they met old friends for hugs and photographs.
“It has not come off my finger, and I got it my 11th-grade year,” Carson said, looking at the ring, before remembering her wedding. “As a matter of fact, it came off. I put on my wedding band, and then I put it right back.”
Eastern is part of Carson’s family in more than one sense. Three of her siblings, three of her own children and one of her grandchildren also graduated from the school. She returns whenever the school needs her, whether to advocate for new windows (as in the late 1990s) or to celebrate Rambler Pride.
And she isn’t alone. Carson was one of hundreds who gathered outside the school as the pride of Capitol Hill celebrated 100 years on East Capitol Street. The Story of Our Schools and Eastern High School presented the anniversary celebration beginning 6 p.m. on Friday, March 31. The exhibit’s opening was followed by a ceremony honoring 14 new inductees to the Hall of Fame.
The current building opened March 6, 1923, but the school itself dates to 1890, making it one of the District’s oldest high schools. After the performance by the Eastern marching band and the Lady Gems, the Eastern US Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) raised a new centennial flag. Knots of people dressed in blue and white circulated around the exhibit, reconnecting with old friends. The museum-grade exhibit features a replica of the Greensboro lunch counter where civil rights activist and Eastern alum Franklin McCain joined others for the famous sit-in.
A photographic timeline honors Eastern’s academic, athletic and creative accomplishments over the last 100 years. “Kids come through the front door, this is the first thing that they see,” principal Steven Miller said of the exhibit, which tells the history of Eastern via images, film and objects. Seniors will walk ninth-graders entering for their first day of school through the exhibit, Miller said, showing them “what it means to be an Eastern Rambler.”
Eastern is the first high school to participate in the Story of Our Schools program, which helps students develop storylines about their school community. According to Jennifer Harris, the program’s founder and executive director, the exhibits become learning tools and inspire additional projects and engaging conversations.
Unlike elementary or middle school students, who participate for over a year, high school students spend a term on their project, working with the executive director of the District’s Charles Sumner Archives. Students researched, wrote and created mini-documentaries about aspects of the school’s history. “These are high school kids,” Harris said. “They can do really cool stuff.”
Rodney Red Grant of the anti-violence program Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Cameras came in to give students an overview of making films on smartphones. The films, once integrated into the digital component of the exhibit, play in a loop on 50-inch screens. QR codes will allow visitors to upload their own photos to the digital archives to be included in the loop. “The idea,” said Harris, “is that we get alumni photos, parent photos, and our kids’ films will be in the exhibit.” It’s a living exhibit and keeps the display fresh.
“It’s a hundred years of history,” noted Harris. “How could there not be interesting facts?” The most obvious thread throughout the past 100 years, Harris remarked, is advocacy, the way students have spoken out against wrongs and used their voices to create change and a better school environment.
Eastern High School has a tradition of advocacy for equity, both in education and society. That includes McCain, who participated in the Greensboro protests that helped change America. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame on March 31, when Franklin McCain Jr. accepted the award on his father’s behalf.
When his father began the sit-in, McCain Jr. recounted, “he said that it was at that moment that he felt like he had truly reached his standard; he had become a man. That was his way of standing up to the injustices of that time. Little did he know, or any of the gentlemen, that they had truly made a change that would affect almost everyone.”
In acknowledging the Hall of Fame honor, McCain Jr. said his father would have reminded the Eastern community “not to make decisions that are popular, but instead those that are right.” He would also have told the audience how proud he was that they have continued the traditions that Eastern High School represents, not only for the city but for the nation.
Eastern students have also focused on inequity in the District. Eastern High School students formed the Modern Strivers in the 1960s, when they saw a need for coursework that reflected the Black experience and Black culture. “Many groups were formed to bring awareness of racial inequality in this country during my time at Eastern,” said Sheila Stevens, of the class of 1970 and a member of the Modern Strivers.
They created the Freedom School in 1968, using money raised by the community to hire full-time teachers. Eastern students were permitted to leave school and attend classes that focused on Black history and culture. The exhibit memorializes the group with photos of students as well as fliers circulated for the classes.
The Freedom School was a sign of a big change in the school and its mission. Eastern had been an all-white school until integration came to the District in October 1954. Ann Hopewell Batiste graduated in 1957. Speaking at the Hall of Fame ceremony, she noted that integration came with social, cultural and academic challenges. “Socially, we had each other,” she said. “And culturally, thanks to our many years in all-Black schools, we knew who we were and took pride in our heritage,” she explained. “The question was, Would we be able to compete academically? And the answer was a resounding yes.”
Many of the white students transferred out, Batiste said. But many stayed. “Eventually, we did become a cohesive group ‒ as classmates, but not so much in the social realm,” she remembered. “Notably, there was great congress between our minds. Our community, our shared pride in being Eastern Ramblers transcended many other categories of division.”
The Hall of Fame ceremony was a new idea, capturing the momentum of the 100-year celebration. Principal Miller, who took on his role last year, said he wants to continue the legacy of the school captured in the exhibit and at the event. “I want to make sure,” he declared, “that as the school begins to change ‒ in terms of population and life experience ‒ that we are still tightly connected to the legacy of those who have come before us.”
Learn more about Story of Our Schools and donate to the exhibit at https://www.storyofourschools.org/schools-exhibitions/eastern/. Learn more about Eastern High School by visiting easternhighschooldcps.org/.
Eastern High Hall of Fame Inductees
- Anthony Boyd, longtime Director of the Eastern High School Marching Band.
- Dwight S. Cropp, George Washington University Professor of Public Policy.
- Linda Washington Cropp, at-large council member and first elected female Chair of DC Council.
- Isaac Fulwood Jr., chief of the Metropolitan Police Department and later chair of The US Parole Commission.
- Joyce Garrett, founder of The Washington Youth Choir.
- Admiral Cecil D. Haney, one of the first Black four-star admirals, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet and later the US Strategic Command.
- Franklin McCain, one of The “Greensboro Four,” who staged a 1960 sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter.
- William Richard (Dick) Mentzer, who coached the school’s football square to nine inter-high school championships and two city titles.
- Anita ‘Ma’ Nance, biology teacher and student mentor.
- Eastern Principal Ralph H. Neal, known for his consistent high standards.
- Vinna L. Freeman, physical education teacher and first Black female to oversee DCPS athletics.
- Constance Roseberry Clark-Snead, former Deputy Superintendent of DC Public Schools.
- Estelle W. Taylor, English teacher during racial integration and the first Black woman awarded a PhD in Renaissance English Literature from Catholic University.
- Eastern Principal Madison W. Tignor, the first Black woman to hold that position.
Hall of Fame Committee
Steven Riddick, Phyllis Anderson, Johnnie Rice, Ann Batiste, William Chesley, James Wesley, Tina Short, Kathryn Gray, Ella Holloway, Tyrone Parker, Rita Peyton Nelson, Dorothy Darbouze, Ralph Jones, Sheila H. Gil-Mebane, Aona Jefferson, Rahim Jenkins, Donna Gardner, Deanne Flournoy, Steven Jamison, Tedrick Bonds