Originally established in 1913, Tucson's first segregated public school had about 30 students attending class in a small building near Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue. Five years later, the school was moved to 11th Avenue and Second Street. The school was named after nationally known black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, whose death in 1906 at age 34 cut short an illustrious writing career.
For years after its opening, Dunbar did not receive adequate funding from the Tucson Unified School District. Despite that, the school became a focal point for Tucson's African-American community. It also attracted appearances from such notables as Langston Hughes, Marion Anderson and Joe Louis.
After the appointment of Morgan Maxwell Sr. as principal in 1940, Dunbar's fortunes began to change. Maxwell demanded equal funding for the school and received support from TUSD superintendent Robert Morrow.
As Tucson's black population increased during and after World War II, campus buildings were expanded and enlarged. In 1948, a new junior high school was added, with graduates going on to an integrated Tucson High.
Through the efforts of Maxwell, Morrow and others, mandatory segregation came to an end in Arizona in 1951, three years before it did nationally. Dunbar's final totally black class of 57 junior-high students graduated that year after hearing commencement addresses on the school's history, as well as one on "courage."
At the suggestion of Morrow, who wanted to eliminate all vestiges of segregation from the district, the school was renamed John Spring, after an early-Arizona white educator. Under this new title, the school remained opened another 27 years.
Long neglected after its closure, the school buildings were acquired more than 10 years ago by the Dunbar Coalition. Their dreams for the facility are finally approaching reality.
"We're working with an architect on the middle portion of the building," says project leader Cress Lander, a longtime city of Tucson administrator before his retirement several years ago. A cultural center will occupy this part of the building, and Lander notes $900,000 in federal funds has been secured to finance the needed improvements. "We hope to go out to bid in about three months," he says, "with construction starting next summer."
Lander indicates the cultural center will include ground floor space for the Barbea Williams dance company, along with classrooms for training students in food service and catering skills, as well as barber and beauty shop instruction. The second floor of the building, he says, will be devoted to a charter school operated by the Tucson Urban League.
Lander hopes to have this part of the project completed by the summer of 2007; that would be about the same time when work on the Dunbar Museum could begin. Funded with $1.2 million of Pima County bond money, the museum will offer a glimpse into the significant black contribution to the history of Tucson and Southern Arizona.
Along with a Southwest reference library which could be associated with the University of Arizona, there will be displays on Buffalo Soldiers, black cowboys and early black pioneers of Tucson, Lander says. "We're trying to make that history a reality" for modern day visitors, he stresses.
They're just beginning the planning process for this part of the project, and Lander expresses concern about how rapidly rising construction costs could impact the overall effort. He points out this is rehabilitation and restoration work, not new construction, so hopes the funding is adequate.
Lander is shooting to have the work entirely completed within three years. "I'm hoping by 2008, we can be home free," he declares.
On Nov. 25 and 26, those attending Dunbar's 10th biennial reunion in the school's refurbished auditorium will be able to discuss the building plans. Plus, as program co-organizer Dolores Willis Townsend says: "It's a chance to bring together all those who attended Dunbar and fell under the influence of some wonderful teachers. They did a good job of educating us."
Expecting about 200 people at the reunion, Townsend points to the unique role that Dunbar School played in Tucson. "It was the center of the black community," she says, "where leaders could gather at a central place."
Townsend recalls that as a second grader in the spring of 1951, she attended a segregated school, but the following fall had white classmates. Townsend doesn't remember the transition as difficult. "I went to school with kids from the neighborhood," she says, "so (the change) was just something else we were doing."
The teachers she had back then left a lifelong impression. "I kept up with my second-, third- and fifth-grade teachers," she says, "and see what they contributed to the community."
The reunion, Townsend emphasizes, is a time to honor these and other former teachers. "We try to recognize them, and say 'thank you,'" she says of these educators.
At the same time, the get-together is a chance to recall the legacy of Dunbar School to Tucson's history. "We can review our roots," Townsend says. "It's a good homecoming."