Just north of downtown, a wrought-iron fence surrounding a simple white building gives no clue of the historical importance of what’s inside.
A barber academy in a small classroom and a dance academy in a standard school auditorium don’t hint at anything special, either.
But behind an office door labeled “Staff Only” in the back of the auditorium, about 10 former students of the Dunbar School tend to the businesses of the Dunbar School Project, a reminder of one of Tucson’s most important contributions to the civil rights movement.
If there were ever a perfect example of resilience, it would be embodied in the former Dunbar students and teachers scurrying around the office behind that door.
For Dunbar, this all began on Sept. 18, 1913, when the Arizona Daily Star’s Thursday morning storyline read, “For the first time in the history of Tucson, negro pupils will have their own school and their own teacher when the city schools open next Monday.”
“I think it was more special in retrospect,” said Vertie Sparks, a former student and a current board member of the Dunbar School Project.
At the time, 65 years ago, the segregated, African-American school felt more like a second home for children who were otherwise not accepted anywhere else, rather than an important breakthrough in Tucson neighborhoods.
“It was wonderful. I was happy as a lark,” said former student, Barbara Lewis, who now serves as a project secretary. “We were a big old family here.”
When the school opened, its two rooms could not offer students the education that white students were receiving across the state. Dunbar had no cafeteria, no access to new textbooks and no auditorium.
“One of our classmates’ mother’s was a cook. She would cook meals for us,” Lewis said.
It took until 1948, eight years after the late Morgan Maxwell, Sr. took charge as the principal of the school, for an auditorium, cafeteria and 23 classrooms to be added.
Maxwell helped shape the school into what it is remembered as today. He was strict and kept a watchful eye over the students, but under him the school flourished.
“We’d call him Eagle Eye because he’d see everything,” Lewis said. “But we learned a lot. We had some of the best teachers. The discipline was strict, but they made us learn.”
Across the nation, African-Americans had to weather segregation and racism.
“I hated it (segregation),” the late Irene George, a former Dunbar student, told the Arizona Daily Star in 1993. “Even today, I have a very low tolerance of anything that smells faintly of segregation.”
Yet within the climate of segregation in the United States, students and teachers at the Dunbar School seemed to be removed from the struggle.
“People always wonder about how hard it was. I think people like seeing us cry,” Lewis said jokingly.
She said students enjoyed Dunbar much more than their previous integrated schools.
“Black children developed better at a school like I went to,” Sparks said. “The integrated schools my children went to had a lot of condescension. The teachers assumed you were not smart enough. At Dunbar, the teachers assumed that you could learn.”
Today, the few remaining members of the Dunbar legacy strive to spread the message of the school’s historical importance. They have reunions where former students and teachers relive memories they created some 60 years ago.
In 1995, the Dunbar Coalition Inc. bought the building from Tucson Unified School District. The school closed in 1978, but members have been renovating the building into an African-American museum and cultural center — a beacon of inspiration for youths within the community.
The board has big dreams.
“We have a library in mind, we have a catering club, a black film club,” said Shirley Hockett, a former student and board member.
The school on 325 W. Second Street was named after renowned black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It is open to the public every Wednesday, and the public can rent the building for personal events.
If the current state of the Dunbar School signifies one thing, it is that no hardship or systematic obstacle is too great. During one of America’s darkest hours, people such as Lewis, Sparks and Hockett managed to create memories so bright that they want to share them with Tucson and the world.
“We want it beautiful,” Hockett said.
Mihdi Afnan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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