The Hill was once home to a school every few blocks. But since the 1950s, dozens have been closed.
Some are lost; some have changed purposes. But many fall under the umbrella of historic protection and still stand, though with quieter halls.
The history of the District’s schools is a window on the changing history of the District. It tells us much about the changing streetscape. It also illuminates the historic demographics in communities and the impacts of racism on the education system itself.
What happened to those schools? What do their stories tell us about Hill history?
You can see a time-lapse map of District school segregation created by the team of historians at Prologue DC.
DC’s school system was established in 1804. But for the first six decades, it was only open to White students. Black communities opened schools to serve Black students, including the Miner School for Girls, opened by Myrtilla Miner in 1851.
The first Black District public school was opened on Military Road in 1864.
After a 1906 reorganization of District schools, nine divisions or geographic areas were designated to White students. Only four were supposed to serve Black students. That meant most White schools had room while Black schools were over-capacity. By the end of World War II, there were about 50,000 White students about 39,000 Black students in District schools.
For the first 150 years of the system, a particular student would not have been permitted to enter just any public school buillding, let alone have any ‘school choice’. Until 1954, the public school system was separated into “White” and “Colored” divisions.
Slow change was precipitated just before legal integration was forced on the system. According to a 1958 study by Erwin Knoll published in the Journal of Negro Education, 21 White schools were turned over to the ‘Colored’ division in the few years before desegregation, most accompanied by racial conflict as White parents resented losing “their” schools and Black families reacted to the “hand-me-down schools”.
Legal desegregation came with Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. A District case, Bolling v. Sharpe, a lawsuit on behalf of 11-year-old Spottswood Bolling was one of five cases that made up Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ensuring the court’s verdict applied to the District and not merely to states.
In 1955, the year after desegregation of the schools, there were 64,000 Black pupils and 41,000 White students, Knoll found. By 1965, White kids accounted for fewer than 10 percent of public school students. Still, because divisions were also linked to geography and so home prices, each White student was allowed 34 percent more funding than their Black peers.
The 1968 riots and the flight of white families to the suburbs meant that schools were increasingly closed beginning in the 1970s. By 1997, DC engaged in a marketing strategy to sell dozens of closed school buildings, some that had been closed as the public school population hit a historic low of about 75,000 and some that had been closed for decades.
Those schools met multiple fates. Some were eventually destroyed. Where 700 Penn now stands, between C, Eighth and Seventh Streets at Pennsylvania Avenue SE, was once the grounds of Hine Junior High. Built in 1892 on the site of Wallach Elementary to serve as the home of Eastern High School, it housed Hine from 1923. As the population grew, Hine spread to take over the Towers Elementary building next door.
By the 1960s, the buildings were in such poor shape that they were finally torn down, and a new school was built across from Eastern Market. In 2008, over objections from the respective communities, Hine JHS was closed and merged into the Eliot JHS building (near Eastern High School), itself more than 80 years old (it was renovated in 2019). In 2015, amid much controversy, the Hine Junior High School building was demolished and replaced with new buildings that house retail, restaurants and condominiums.
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Merging and Changing
Some of these decisions may have been a reaction on the part of officials to Carr vs. Corning, a lawsuit filed October 7, 1947 on behalf of Marguerite Carr. Carr attended Browne Junior High, the only junior high school to serve Black students in the area. But enrollment was so high, she could only get 4.5 hours of schooling in a time when 6 hours was the standard.
Her parents requested she be transferred to the less populated Eliot Junior High School (JHS). But that request was denied; Carr was a Black student –and Eliot JHS was in the White Division. A month after Carr’s parents filed suit, the Blow Elementary School building was transferred to be used as an annex to Browne. According to research from Story of Our Schools, that year Browne Junior High School served 1,826 students. The building’s capacity was supposed to be 888 students— less than half its population.
Built for White students in 1906, Henry T. Blow Elementary served overflow from Browne Elementary from 1947. A Commissioner of the District of Columbia in 1874, Blow was born in Southampton County, Virginia, to Captain Peter and Elizabeth Blow. They claimed ownership of the famed man Dred Scott. Scott sued for his freedom, leading to the 1857 Supreme Court decision that found enslaved people were not considered citizens under the US Constitution.
Blow Elementary closed in 1997. By the time it closed, the school was known as Blow-Pierce Elementary. The original building was razed and a new structure built to house students from Pierce School (1375 Maryland Ave. NE), which closed in the 1970s. Blow Pierce is now part of the Friendship Public Charter School System.
Browne Junior High is now Browne Educational Campus. We still have the building. That’s because together with other buildings built specifically built for Black students on the campus from 1935-1952 (including Spingarn Senior High School, Charles Young Elementary School and Phelps High School), it was added to the National Register of Historic Sites in 2013.
In the 1960s, William Ludlow Elementary (659 G St. NE), which moved out of the White division in 1951, merged with Zachary Taylor Elementary (about 643 Seventh St. NE), which had been transferred to the ‘Colored’ Division in 1947. The Taylor building was razed in 1969.
Conversion to Residential
But the bulk of former schools were sold and converted to residential use. Their large size and high ceilings made them perfect for luxury condominiums.
Named for the 14th president, Franklin Pierce Elementary (1375 Maryland Ave NE) was built in 1894 and became a school for Black students in 1947. It closed in 1978 and is now Pierce Lofts. Lovejoy Elementary, named for Presbyterian Minister and White abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy, was built for Black students in 1901 and closed in 1988. It is now the Lovejoy Lofts, with part of the schoolyard serving as a public park.
Thomas Barbour Bryan Elementary (1315 Independence Ave. SE) was named for the final Commissioner of the District of Columbia. It was built for white students in 1906 and run only by women; after sitting empty for twenty years it was converted into luxury condos in 2004 and retains separate entrances for boys and girls.
Lenox School (1889, 725 Fifth St. SE) was made into new pet-friendly condos the same year. James B. Edmonds Elementary (901 D St. NE) was converted into condominiums, one as large as 4,000 square feet, in 2014. The same fate befell James Madison Elementary (651 Tenth St. NE) and James Buchanan Elementary (1324 E St. SE), which closed in 1992 and 1993.
Back to School
Some schools have found their way back to educational uses.
Dr. Richard Kingman lived on East Capitol Street; an 1886 graduate of Howard University Medical School, Kingsman Elementary (1375 E St. NE) was built for White students and named for him in 1922. Closed in 1993, the building has hosted two charter schools since; it is now Kingsman Public Charter School. Similarly, the Logan School, built in 1891 and named for General John A. Logan, is now the home to Capitol Hill Montessori.
The former Josiah Dent School was built in 1900 but closed in 1947. Capitol Hill Day School (210 South Carolina Ave. SE) has now occupied the building for more years than DCPS did – they began leasing the building in 1968 and bought it in the 1990s.
W.B. Webb Elementary (614 15th St. NE) opened in 1901, serving Black students from the overcrowded Browne Junior High School who were not permitted to attended underutilized White Schools. In 1949 it became an elementary school before closing in 1961. It is currently being renovated to serve Early Childhood Education (ECE) needs at Miner Elementary (601 15th St. NE).
The first black public elementary school in DC, Joshua Giddings Elementary School (315 G St. SE) was built in 1887 and closed in 1990 after losing its playground space to construction of I-695 in 1963. It is now home to One Life Fitness (formerly Sport & Health), but chalkboards and child-sized benches can still be seen along the walls; the door to one studio reads “Kindergarten.”
Meanwhile, the former B.B. French School, built in 1904 as a manual training school for White children, closed in 1947. It’s back to education –though not precisely a school. It served as intermittent storage space for the U.S. Marines for several years before community members banded together to renovate the building into a community arts center. In 1980, it opened as the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW).
Though they may no longer echo with the sounds of learning, the red-bricked schools of the Hill still largely stand throughout our neighborhood, each with a story to tell itself and many more that remain sealed behind the mortar of the past. But each is a sign post to a part of our history and as when they opened their doors daily to learning, they still have much to teach us.
This work draws on the work of others. Story of Our Schools has worked with multiple school communities to tell the histories of school buildings and communities. See presentations online at storyofourschools.org. The historians at Prologue DC have worked to map historic segregation in DC, including schools but also historic Black communities, churches and playgrounds. See their work at www.mappingsegregationdc.org
With gratitude to @LongWalksDC for sharing her work on Instagram.