Dunbar School Has A Rich History -- And One Group Is Working To Ensure It Has A Bright Future.
By Margaret Regan
ON THE MORNING of September 18, 1913, the city's daily newspaper had a breathless announcement to make.
"For the first time in the history of Tucson negro (sic) pupils will have their own school and their own teacher when the city schools open next Monday," the anonymous Arizona Daily Star writer enthused. "The new school for negroes will be located at Sixth street and Sixth avenue, and will have for a teacher Professor Cicero Simmons of Phoenix, who arrived yesterday to take up his duties."
So began the official segregation of blacks and whites in the Old Pueblo's schools. The practice would last 38 years, 33 of them at the Dunbar School north of downtown.
In Tucson's early years, the town's frontier residents hadn't been too exercised about the "Negro Question." Not many African-Americans lived in Tucson, and old photographs testify to the racial mingling of students in the city's early public schools, with black faces comfortably interspersed among the white and brown. The free-and-easy frontier life was stratifying by the turn of the century, though, and in 1909 the Territorial Legislature allowed towns to segregate black schoolchildren from white.
That permission turned to an order in 1912, the year of statehood. The new state legislators were anxious for Arizona to be like the rest of the nation, and that meant school segregation. Voted into law on May 20, 1912, the state statute decreed that school board trustees "shall segregate pupils of the African race from pupils of the white races and, to that end, are empowered to provide all accommodations made necessary by such segregation."
Simmons, a black educator from Phoenix, had impeccable credentials. Praised by the Star writer as "one of the leaders of his race in the Southwest," he came equipped not only with a diploma from the famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (along with two years of study at the University of Michigan) but with a letter of recommendation signed by Booker T. Washington himself.
Despite all the fine talk, the new institution was separate and unequal from the start. Simmons' Colored School apparently was not deemed worthy of a name, and its quarters were not prepossessing. Located at 211 E. Sixth Street, it shared space with Mariscal's Grocery.
Simmons was to be paid $90 a month to teach everybody from the first graders to the high schoolers. His first year's enrollment was somewhere around 50 students, a veritable crowd in the tiny grocery rooms, which undoubtedly were heated up and flour-dusted by the baking done on the premises. By 1917, the school board realized that something had to be done, and paid the city $100 for a clear deed to a plot of land at West Second Street and 11th Avenue. Like so many other black schools across the U.S., the new school was to be named for Paul Laurence Dunbar, an acclaimed black poet and novelist who had died in 1906.
The up-and-coming architect Henry O. Jaastad was hired to design the new building. Born in 1872 in Norway, Jaastad had immigrated to Wisconsin with his family at the age of 14. There he apprenticed as a cabinet-maker but he followed his sweetheart, the tubercular Millie Wick, to Tucson in 1902. He became a citizen in 1904, and undertook a correspondence course in architecture, while studying electrical engineering at the UA.
Though he lost his wife in 1907, the time was exactly right for an ambitious young man of the likes of Jaastad. Tucson was booming, and by the time he put down his drawing pencil and T-square in 1959, at the age of 87, his firm had made 500 building plans, with some 125 commercial buildings, 13 churches and 46 schools to its credit. And Jaastad found time to put in 18 years as the city's mayor as well, from 1933 to 1947.
If the changing fortunes of the "Colored School" over the years represented the century's changing racial ideas, Jaastad's many designs for its new building made for a capsule history of Tucson architecture. Jaastad's original Dunbar building was small and modest. According to architect Corky Poster, whose firm currently is working on the building's restoration for the non-profit Dunbar Coalition, the first two-room school had brick facades and a pitched roof, echoing the style of Armory Park houses Jaastad had already built.
Simmons, now assisted by teacher Mabel Bland, moved his pupils to the new building in 1918, but it quickly grew too small. In 1921, Jaastad more than doubled the school's size, adding onto the main floor, putting classrooms in the basement and building an exterior staircase to connect them. Dunbar was enlarged further in 1930, and again in 1935. Jaastad by now was mayor, and he decided to change the architecture dramatically, converting his simple brick building into a Mission Revival fantasy.
The popular Spanish style, influenced by the 1915 California-Panama Exposition in San Diego, was quickly transforming the city's streetscape. Annie Graham Rockfellow, chief architect in the Jaastad firm, was one of the most able Tucson practitioners of the style. She designed the Safford School of 1918 and probably El Con Resort in 1925, endowing these public buildings and private homes alike with red tile roofs, curving Spanish arches and porticos. Jaastad himself had composed an intricate Mission Revival facade for San Agustín Cathedral in 1933, and shortly afterward he grafted the style -- in simpler form -- onto Dunbar. The bricks were plastered with a creamy stucco, a red roof was added, and so were elaborate porticoes at the north and east entrances.
"Architecture was supposed to be decorative," Jaastad said at the age of 90, "beautiful, rich, living."
Maxwell unapologetically insisted on equal treatment. He complained to the board in 1947 of overcrowding, saying he expected an influx of 100 new students in the fall, raising enrollment to an unacceptable 525 or 550 students. (By this time, the school went only through ninth grade; students continued on at Tucson High, an integrated school that nevertheless insisted on segregated homerooms.)
In fact, the school's Maxwell years produced a whole generation of African-American leaders for Tucson. Among them were Drs. Anna Jolivet and Laura Banks, retired educators, and Cressworth Lander, a former city Community Services director who also served the federal government in Washington, D.C.
Maxwell would stay on at the school through integration, retiring in 1968; TUSD named the westside Maxwell Junior High after him in 1973. He died at age 84 in 1987.
Coincidentally, the year that Maxwell arrived, the Mission Revival version of the school was completed. Adding on a west wing, Mayor Jaastad elaborated the building into a graceful H. As architect Poster puts it, "This was the heyday of the school. The building reached its final form and it was effectively producing black leaders."
Times were beginning to change, though. The dislocations of the war had brought new ideas even to the remote Southwest. Segregation was starting to seem backward, embarrassing even, and Mission Revival was looking a little too regional for the new post-war age. In 1948, seized by the new ideas of international modernism, Jaastad made a major switch in architectural styles. Perhaps he thought that the clean lines of modernism would complement the bright new age of integration. His enormous new two-story addition to the west of the old building housed an auditorium and classrooms, but it dwarfed the old school. ("It's a nice building on its own," comments Poster, "but it overwhelms the old building -- and it's his building!") Instead of curving Spanish motifs, it had grids of plain windows and industrial concrete facing. Jaastad "modernized" the old school too, tearing down the Spanish-style porticos.
Dunbar had gone totally Bauhaus.
And soon it would go integrated. In a speech at the 1950 dedication of the now-gigantic, modern school, Maxwell credited TUSD superintendent Robert D. Morrow with the vision to abandon segregation. Quoting Morrow, he said, "There is no place in a democracy, either in the statutes or the minds of men, for prejudice, hatred, discrimination or intolerance."
In 1951, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional, the state Legislature softened Arizona's law, allowing but not requiring schools to separate blacks and whites. At Morrow's behest, TUSD's board voted for full integration.
By the fall, Dunbar was no more. Since the old title was so closely associated with segregation, the newly integrated school got a new name, John Spring, in honor of the city's first public schoolteacher, who began work in 1871. A final addition was put up in 1966, a library on the south side designed by Swaim and Cook.
Spring continued as a junior high, but the fine speeches at its inaugural were contradicted by the plaintiffs in a desegregation lawsuit in the 1970s. They complained that, while TUSD claimed to be integrated, it carefully gerrymandered its neighborhood boundaries, ensuring that whites would go to school with whites, minorities with minorities. U.S. District Court Judge William Frey agreed. In 1978, he unceremoniously shut Spring down, declaring that it had unlawfully remained a minority school. In a newsletter to parents, TUSD explained that "it was determined that Spring was a vestige of Dunbar with a continuing stigma as a school not attended by Anglos."
The Spring students were bused out to junior highs in other neighborhoods, including Doolen, and, ironically, Maxwell. The longtime center of black community life in Tucson was no more.
Various ideas for the empty structure were floated over the years. Perhaps it could be used by the alternative high school, Project More, or by the gifted high school, University, or evolve into an arts center or even a courthouse. Dismayed by the costly repairs required for restoration, some TUSD board members thought that its best use would be a date with the wrecking ball. The new Dunbar Coalition thought otherwise. Made up of reps from the Tucson Urban League, the Juneteenth Committee, the Dunbar Alumni Association and the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Association, the Coalition wanted the school, and they wanted it for $25. A year's politicking finally brought the school board around, and the coalition bought it for their asking price in November 1994.
The Coalition plan is to turn the two-part building into a two-part institution, says Poster. The older Dunbar half would become an African-American museum, with galleries and offices on the first floor, storage in the basement. Only the Dunbar half is listed as a contributing property to the neighborhood's National Historic District, and original plans called for the demolition of the less-loved Spring side. Poster says now the new plan is to tear down only the portion adjoining Dunbar, creating a courtyard between the two. The two-story west end would become a community cultural center equipped with classrooms, and its old school auditorium would be renovated as a theater to be rented out for smallish performances of dance, music and readings.
"The purpose is to help keep alive the history of those alumni who attended Dunbar from 1918 to 1951," says Dunbar Coalition president Johnny Bowens. "There's a story to be told. We want to keep the legacy alive."
Some of the nuts and bolts preparation work has already been done. With the aid of Community Development Block grants, the building has been secured with chain link, Poster says, and a new red roof installed on Dunbar and its beloved porticos restored. A parking lot, basketball court and community garden have been put in place to welcome back neighbors long troubled by the blight in their midst. Restoration of the theatre is the next step, "to get people in the building and produce income," explains Poster, and then the museum. About $350,000 has already been spent, just a small portion of the total estimated project cost of $3 million, which the coalition is still raising.
Meantime, Dunbar School alumni continue to remember. For the first annual Dunbar School reunion in 1987, Mayor Lew Murphy issued a proclamation that captures its unusual history. It read in part:
"...despite the injustices of its being, Dunbar provided a solid education for hundreds of black youngsters, with student bodies that produced outstanding achievers in all disciplines and adult leadership for all manner of human endeavor, and whereas, in 1951, the Dunbar reality was ended by community conscience...I urge that all citizens take this occasion to reflect that good memories can take wing even when denied the full flight of fancy due them...."
Sources for this article include Mona Lange McCrosky's "Henry O. Jaastad: Architect of Tucson's Future," published in The Smoke Signal, No. 53, Spring 1990; unpublished information sheets by historian Gloria Smith, written in 1995; A Report of the African-American History Internship Project, edited by Harry Lawson, 1988; and the ephemera collection at the Arizona Historical Society.
For information on the Dunbar restoration project, call 622-4072.
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