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From the early 1800s until the first half of the 20th century, Washington, DC was seen as a leader in education. The earliest free black population stressed education, and the first known private school for African Americans in Washington was founded in 1807 to educate children and adults. Families migrated to Washington for its educational opportunities. In 1862 Congress passed legislation to establish public schools for African Americans.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a virtual campus of elementary and secondary schools had developed in the area of First, N, O, and P streets: Armstrong Technical High School, O Street Vocational High School, John F. Cook School, and John Mercer Langston School. The schools clustered there to serve nearby post-Civil War African American settlements.

Armstrong Manual Training School (First and P streets, NW) was built in 1901-1902 and named for General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a white Civil War regimental commander and founder of Hampton Institute. White architect Waddy B. Wood designed the building in the Renaissance Revival style. The school taught practical, manual skills, following the educational philosophy identified with Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute. The building was listed on the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. The Veterans High School Center operated from 1946 until 1964 at the old Armstrong Building.

The O Street Vocational High School (O Street between North Capitol and First Street, NW) opened in 1912 to serve female students. In 1926 it was renamed the Margaret Murray Washington Vocational School for Colored Girls to honor Washington, a teacher and administrator at Tuskegee Institute and the wife of Booker T. Washington. The school continues to operate as the Margaret Murray Washington High School for Allied Health and Culinary Arts. White architect Snowden Ashford designed the building.

The John Mercer Langston School and the John Fox Slater School were built adjacent to one another on P Street between North Capitol and First streets, NW, in 1902 and 1891 respectively. Langston School was designed by white architect Appleton P. Clark, and the designer of Slater is not recorded. Langston (1829-1897) was an abolitionist, founder of Howard University Law School, and U.S. congressman from Virginia. Slater (1814-1884) was a white philanthropist and manufacturer from Slatersville, Rhode Island, who funded industrial education for freedmen.

The John F. Cook School (P Street between North Capitol and First streets) was designed in 1925 by white architect Albert L. Harris. It was named for Cook (1810-1855), an educator and clergyman who was instrumental in the institution of free schools in the early 19th century and who founded the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. Built to accommodate the overflow students from nearby Langston and Slater Elementary Schools, John F. Cook Elementary continues to operate.

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School was also built in this area. See separate entry, "Paul Laurence Dunbar High School."

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