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Armstrong Tech Class of '51 Reflect on Segregation, King Memorial, D.C. History

Tracey Gold Bennett | 8/24/2011, 2:05 p.m.
Armstrong Senior High Class of '51 stroll the halls of the school during a 60th anniversary celebration, Sat., Aug. 20 in Northwest, D.C. / Photo by Roy Lewis

What if you could go back and walk the halls of your youth?

On Aug. 20 a group of 23 members of Armstrong Technical High School's Class of 1951 gathered and did just that. They boarded a bus for a tour around their old haunts in Washington, D.C., in celebration of their 60th reunion.

"This is our 60th anniversary graduating from Armstrong Technical. There were two classes, which graduated that year, one in February and another in June. This group is a mixture of both classes," said Marlboro Sharpe, corresponding secretary for the group.

The first stop on the tour was Armstrong Tech on O Street, between 1st and 2nd Streets, in Shaw.

Every 10 years, the class meets to reflect, share old memories and return to their school.

"Neckties, khaki pants and a crisp shirt. We dressed when we went to school," recalled Samuel "Jack Green. "Notice the two doors on P St. -- the first door was for the boys, and the other side was for the girls."

In 1951, the year the group graduated, the Municipal Court of Appeals ruled that racial segregation in restaurants was illegal in Washington, D.C. That same year seven black men in Martinsville, Va., were sentenced to execution for the rape of a white woman. The United States was engaged in the Korean War, and Eric Holder, the first African-American U.S. attorney general, was born.

Named after Gen. Samuel Chapman Armstrong, (who led a contingent of African-American soldiers during the Civil War), the Armstrong Manual Training school was built in 1902, and focused on vocational arts. Academics were included in the curriculum in 1928 and the school became Armstrong High School. The historic irony is that the black regiment was kept separate from the white troops during the Civil War and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, kept black and white school children separate.

"It was so segregated there were only four high schools African Americans could attend, Armstrong, Phelps, Margaret Washington and Dunbar," said Samuel Green. "We were a Division 2 school, white schools were Division 1. They sent us all the hand-me-down books."

The case that would end school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, did not happen until 1954 -- three years after the class of 1951 graduated. Still the pain from separate but equal is not forgotten. Green's wife Shirley (attended Cardozo) accompanied him on the tour of the school. She remembers the pain of segregation.

"I hold on to it. I can get along with the devil if I have to. But when you see it, it comes back to you," she said. "Kids [today] don't see color, they just see another kid."

The racial climate in this country now is vastly different from when these students attended Armstrong, and this tour occurred a week before the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. The significance is not lost on the group.

"I would never have believed it [if someone told me], a King Memorial and a black president," said Sharpe.

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