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James G. Birney Elementary School (1889) was the city's first public school for blacks in Hillsdale. Prior to its construction, Hillsdale residents organized and funded their own schools. It was named to honor James Gillespie Birney, a white Kentucky abolitionist who had liberated his own slaves and published the anti-slavery newspaper, The Philanthropist, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In 1901 the current Italian Renaissance building was constructed, and the original building was used as an annex until it was razed in 1914. The new building was also used as a community center for adult education, civic association meetings, and a branch of the DC Public Library. The building was renamed Nichols Avenue Elementary School in 1962 after Nichols Avenue, the original name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. Community activism saved the school from demolition in 1972.

A third Birney School was constructed at 2501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE.

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