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Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, originally the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth and later M Street High School, was founded in 1870 as the first public high school for African Americans in the United States and the first public high school for any student in the District of Columbia. The school honors Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the most acclaimed writers at the turn of the 20th century, who lived in Washington from 1897 until 1902.

Since its inception, the school has graduated many of the well-known figures of the 20th century, including Sterling Brown, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Charles R. Drew, Charles Hamilton Houston, Robert H. Terrell, and Robert C. Weaver. Its illustrious faculty included Anna Julia Cooper, Kelly Miller, Mary Church Terrell, and Carter G. Woodson. Among its principals were Anna J. Cooper, Richard Greener, Mary Jane Patterson, and Robert H. Terrell. An unusual number of teachers and principals held Ph.D. degrees. This was the result of the entrenched white supremacy and patriarchy that pervaded the nation's professions and served to exclude the majority of African American women and men from faculty positions at predominantly white institutions of higher learning. As a consequence, however, Dunbar High School was considered the nation's best high school for African Americans during the first half of the 20th century. It helped make Washington, DC, an educational and cultural capital.

William Syphax, the first chair of the Board of Trustees of the Colored Public Schools in the District of Columbia, began the Preparatory High School in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church (15th Street between I and K streets, NW). It moved around the city until 1892, when it moved into a new building at 128 M Street, NW (now the Perry School building) and was renamed M Street School. In 1916 it moved to another new building at First and N streets, NW, and was renamed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. The final change, perhaps the most controversial one, was the demolition of the original Dunbar High School building and the construction of the current building in 1977.

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