Located in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC, the Morse School served many purposes after its opening in 1883 as an elementary school that exclusively served white children. Designed by an unidentified architect in the District’s Office of the Building Inspector, the Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School was built in the Georgian Revival style, a highly typical design for eight room, late-nineteenth century school buildings. Named for the inventor of the telegraph, the school itself has no historical connection to Samuel F.B. Morse.
In 1911-1912, the elementary school transitioned into a “special school” that offered only specialized classes. Upon its opening, it was the only public school building used for such courses in the District. Students sent to the “special school” were identified as “incorrigible children who present social behavior problems” but who were “not feeble-minded in the sense that they should be confined in institutions.” The school itself housed a cooking department, dress tailoring shop, and a carpenter shop. Traditional classrooms were abandoned entirely, and the school continued to serve only white students.
However, in 1930, demographic changes in the surrounding neighborhood led to the Morse School’s transfer back into a traditional elementary school, but this time for Black students in the area. By 1939, the Morse School was identified as being an inadequate property for schooling—teachers had no restroom, the hallways were unheated, and there were no administrative offices for the principal. Ten years later, the school closed for student use.
By the 1950s, the school housed offices for public school administrators and offered space for barbering classes, courses for veterans, and night school lessons. Problems of dilapidation and declining funds resulted in the designation of the Morse School as a “surplus school” in 1976. After sitting vacant for five years, the building was sold to the non-profit Africare in 1981.
After a lengthy renovation, the façade remained mostly unaltered and the building remains representative of classic Georgian Revival style design. The F.B. Morse School’s diverse and sporadic history demonstrates the influence of larger historical themes – segregation, desegregation, the expansion of public schooling, urban demographic shifts – on the District of Columbia and remains a significant building both architecturally and historically.
DC Inventory: September 24, 2020