History Under Their Feet

Stuart-Hobson Students Learn About School’s Segregated Past

Posted April 24, 2009 at 4:01pm

Stuart-Hobson Middle School is rich in social history, having been on Capitol Hill since the 1920s. Back then, only white students could attend what was known as Stuart Junior High at 410 E St. NE.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decision Bolling v. Sharpe required District public schools to integrate. Today, the school teaches about 400 middle schoolers with a makeup that is 88.6 percent African-American, 9.9 percent white and 1.5 percent Hispanic.

The change in Stuart’s population and other aspects of the Northeast Capitol Hill neighborhood can be seen in artifacts now tucked into Stuart-Hobson’s library.

It wasn’t long ago, though, that those very artifacts were in danger of being lost. A wealth of historic items — teachers’ roll books, PTA scrapbooks and photographs — were discovered in the summer of 2006 when the school’s library was undergoing renovations.

Suzanne Wells, a parent volunteer, said she and other parents were clearing out the library when they stumbled upon the historically significant materials in the book storage room. “We saw photographs lying on the floor by the radiator. These old items were clearly in danger of being destroyed,— she said.

School librarian Janice MacKinnon wanted to archive the artifacts and asked the Institute of Museum and Library Services for a grant. The institute gave Stuart-Hobson roughly $20,000, enough to cover the salary of two part-time archivists and the construction of the artifacts’ new storage area.

The school also enlisted the help of students to preserve items — by photocopying the teachers’ roll books, for example. Eighth-graders also interviewed people in the Capitol Hill community with ties to the school, creating an oral history for the next generation of Stuart-Hobson students.

“Kids get a kick out of discovering the occupation of the students’ parents back in the 1920s,— MacKinnon said. While today, many of the students’ parents work in offices mostly as Hill staffers, 80 years ago, most parents were bricklayers, gravediggers, milkmen and street lighters. Seeing the artifacts, said student Markell Young, “is a great lesson in history, seeing how people were long before.—

Seventh-grader Courtney Thomas Jr. was one of the 12 students working on the oral history. “We interviewed alumni and former PTA board members and learned about their perspective when the school was integrated,— he said.

Some of the interviewees protested when African-American students were allowed into the school, Thomas said. “It is was a sad thing to me because everybody should be able to go to a school of their choice.— Conducting interviews, Thomas said, “was a better way for me to get educated about Washington’s and the school’s history.—

In addition to the oral history, students helped create a time capsule containing collages of pictures showing the current trends in electronics, sports, fashion and movies, MacKinnon said. “We wanted to create a snapshot of what life is this year for the next generation of Stuart-Hobson students,— she added.

This was not the first time the school created a time capsule to preserve the memories of the school and its denizens. Nancy Cunningham, Stuart-Hobson’s beloved science teacher, led her students in burying the school’s first time capsule in 1986 to mark the integration of Stuart and Hobson middle schools.

But that first time capsule is nowhere to be found.

“Nobody just paid attention to it for a long time,— MacKinnon said. When Cunningham died, the school community tried to locate her time capsule. “We used metal detectors and dug up the spot where we thought it was buried. But we could not find it,— MacKinnon recalled.

So one drizzly morning in April, students buried a second time capsule, with a plan to retrieve it after five years or so. The students placed the time capsule in the garden named after Cunningham to honor her contribution to the school. But to be on the safe side, MacKinnon said they would also put a stone on the exact location of the second time capsule.

“I have to order a stone,— MacKinnon said. “We don’t want to lose that time capsule again.—

The cylindrical metal cache contains collages as well as essays about Stuart-Hobson students’ hopes and dreams.

“I hope,— said 13-year-old Markell Young, describing what he wrote, “for our economy to get better. We’re in a recession right now so my parents are having trouble about me going to high school.—

Paris Person, 14, said he aspires to be a professional football or basketball player. “If not, I want to be a sports doctor so that I’d still be in sports and help the players,— he said.