In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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A Brief History

The Dunbar School and Educational Opportunities

Before 1909, Arizona schools were not segregated. Among Tucson's earliest schools were the Academy of St. Joseph (which opened in 1867), Drachman, Davis and Safford.

In 1909, the Arizona legislature passed a law mandating that Arizona school children be segregated by race for their first 8 years of school. When Arizona became a state in 1912, they changed the wording of the law from "mandatory" segregation to "permissible to segregate."

The Tucson School District chose to follow the practice of segregated schooling by creating a Colored school. The first classes were taught by a Mr. Simmons. They were held in a vacant building at 215 E. Sixth Street. African American families protested the segregation of their children into this inadequate facility by boycotting the school. The boycott lasted two weeks. The Denkins family finally broke the strike by sending their three children to the school. As the year progressed, the school grew to 11 students.

In 1912, the school moved to larger facilities on West Second Street and became the Paul Lawrence Dunbar School.


The first "colored school" in Tucson was established 1913 at 215 E. 6th St.

The first "colored school" in Tucson was established 1913 at 215 E. 6th Street
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Visitors are invited to learn more in the Dunbar School Photographic Exhibit

Once the Dunbar school opened it became a focal point for community activities. With the help of dedicated teachers and concerned parents, the children at Dunbar school managed to receive a good education despite the poor facilities and lack of resources. According to Willie Ernestine Hall-Fears, a former Dunbar student:

"In the beginning, Dunbar had no auditorium, no real library, no cafeteria, and no gymnasium. The class books were used and handed down from other schools to us. Despite these inadequacies, there was among us an atmosphere of unity and 'togetherness.' We had African American teachers who were deeply motivated to teach us beyond our standard studies." [Lawson, Dunbar School, p.4]

Prior to 1920, students graduating from Dunbar who wanted to continue their education were forced to teach each other in the old Roskruge School after classes for other students were done for the day. [Henry, p.92-3] In the 1920's, this practice changed and students were allowed to attend Tucson High School. While the school contained students of both races, homerooms were still segregated and there were restrictions on their participating in many school activities. African American high school students generally participated in clubs and organizations sponsored by the African American community.

There were no legal restrictions on African Americans attending state universities and records show that many did attend. However African Americans were not permitted to live in school dormitories, or to eat in university dining halls. By 1932, students could eat in the dining hall, but other acts of discrimination were still evident such as lower grades on assignments and the inability to register for some classes. [Henry, p. 92-93]

In 1951, the Tucson schools voluntarily agreed to dismantle the segregated school system. Dunbar school was integrated in 1952 and renamed John Spring. This did not mean, however that African American students now had equal access to education. According to Ruben Salter, a Tucson attorney:

"We [could see] where there were deliberate attempts to gerrymander school discticts and assign students based on race and ethnicity. We wanted to eliminate assignment patterns and feeder patterns that continued to perpetuate a segregated system." [Lawson, Dunbar School, p.9]

Attorney Salter led a team who pursued legal action against the Tucson School District on behalf of the NAACP. Their law suit was successful, and the attorneys, courts, NAACP and TUSD have been working together over many years to remove barriers, insure equity, and deliver a quality education to all students regardless of race.