Heritage Month – Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

dunbarNow known as Dunbar Middle School, this building originally house students from junior high to junior college.  For years the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School was known throughout Arkansas and the south as an outstanding school for African American students.

From 1929 until 1955, Dunbar High School provided a high-quality education for African American students, not only within Little Rock but also from far-reaching corners of the state.   Today the National Dunbar Alumni Association is a well-organized network of former students with active chapters throughout the United States. 

The school is located in a residential area south of downtown Little Rock. George H. Wittenburg and Lawson L. Delony designed the edifice, built on a southeast-northwest axis. Both architects contributed to the design of Little Rock Central High School (1927; listed on the National Register in 1977), which is nine blocks west of Dunbar.

Dunbar was designed to accommodate an academic curriculum as well as the more traditional vocational programs often considered the limit of education for blacks. In 1980, Dunbar Junior and Senior High School and Junior College was listed on the National Register.

The significance of Dunbar Junior High School derives both from the unique place it occupies in the history of education in Arkansas and from the modern architectural concepts with which it was designed. Dunbar was a center of quality education for black Arkansans in the state’s segregated public school system, functioning as a junior high school, high school, and junior college until its last high-school and junior-college classes graduated in 1955.

It had further distinction as one of only two industrial arts schools in the south to attain junior college rating, also in 1931-1932, as well as the recognition and acceptance of the Dunbar curriculum as the basis for admission to colleges and universities throughout the United States. In 1943 the school was involved in a controversy concerning equal pay for black and white teachers in the Little Rock School System, which was resolved in Morris v. Williams, 149 F. 2d 703, heard before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This was a landmark case in establishing the principle of “equal pay based on professional qualifications and services rendered.”

The architects’ achievement in designing an architecturally eminent setting for this progressive passage in Arkansas history is also noteworthy. With an eye toward form following function, the plan of the building promotes maximum use of space and expedient circulation. Aesthetically, the building is decidedly modern, with decorative brick and stone work and striking towers reflecting an interest in the Art Deco style of the period.