The Central and Cardozo Controversy

by Donald Roe, Ph.D.

[Excerpted and condensed from a work “in progress”]

       When the District of Columbia Board of Education refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing at Central High School in 1939, Central became a symbol of the discrimination against Blacks in the public school system.  This incident became a topic for discussion and remembrance as African-Americans continued their struggle for equal rights in Washington.  Ten years later, in 1949, Central High became embroiled in a another racially divisive controversy.  The stakes were higher this time, and the dispute was more acrimonious. The fate of several thousand Black and white high school pupils, and perhaps the entire dual school system, hung in the balance. The disagreement concerned a proposal to transfer the white Central High to the Colored School Division to eliminate overcrowding at the Black Cardozo High School.             

      Central High School opened in 1877 as a coeducational white school at Seventh Street and Rhode Island Avenue, Northwest.  From the beginning, Central provided myriad activities that involved both students and the community. As the population grew, the enrollment at Central increased so significantly that its facilities became inadequate. In the 1930s, an increase in the white student population in the District of Columbia created a need for new schools.  The Board of Education constructed several new high schools in northwest Washington to meet this demand.  Roosevelt, Coolidge, and Wilson soon attracted many high school students who would have attended Central.  As a result, the student population at Central continued to decline well into the 1940s. Central continued to be underutilized, although it functioned as both a junior and senior high school.      

     Unlike Central, the student population at Cardozo High School increased steadily through the years.  By the late 1940s, the problems at Cardozo had become intolerable.  Its student population, which already exceeded its capacity, increased rapidly. The condition of the school's physical plant threatened its accreditation.1  The deplorable conditions at Cardozo and the other Black high schools became new targets for Black and white activists challenging the status quo in the District of Columbia Public School System. It angered activists that Cardozo High, which was located near Central High School in northwest Washington, had a student population double its capacity. They sought justification from the Board of Education on the luxury of housing so few students at Central while so many Black schools were overcrowded.  They wanted the Board to explore any solution that might reduce overcrowding in Black schools.


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November 2000