15. 3500 R Street

3500 R Street
Photo by Bob Rives

Duke Ellington School for Art (formerly Western High School)

The Duke Ellington School for the Arts was originally Western High School (changing its name in 1974). Western was built in 1891 at 36th and Reservoir Road for the white community who lived in the nearby newly constructed row houses. Unfortunately, the purchase of the land for the school displaced African American residents living in the old “Brinetown” neighborhood resulting in an African American exodus to Foggy Bottom and to Southwest Washington. Later, when Georgetown University expanded and when the University Hospital was constructed in 1898, still more African American families were displaced. Finally, the construction of the Capital Traction Company’s streetcar terminal on M Street, with the station on Prospect and 36th Street, forced even more citizens out of their neighborhood.

Despite an enduring community effort, segregation was an omnipresent reality. Since 1927, Georgetown’s African American children had attended the Francis Junior High School at 24th  and N Street. Unable to attend the nearby Western High School, however, older African American students were required to commute to the city’s segregated high schools in other parts of the city. Some attended Dunbar High School, which was considered one of the best academic high school in the country, but more than twenty blocks away from Georgetown at 1 Street and O Street. Others attended Armstrong Vocational School at 1st and P Street, Cardozo Business High School at 9th and Rhode Island, Phelps School, or Martha Washington Vocational School for Boys and Girls. Every morning the children that lived in Georgetown started walking and with every block the number of children would increase until there were large troops of children heading to school. Only when it rained or snowed would the students use their tokens to ride the streetcar to school. Western High School was integrated in the 1940s and despite occasional discrimination and discouragement from teachers and administrators self-assured African American students resolved to strive harder and earn good grades for admission to college. Many went on to Howard University and DC Teacher’s College, now the University of the District of Columbia.