The Lucy Diggs Slowe Elementary School first opened in 1945 in response to a lawsuit against segregated schooling in DC. John Preston Davis attempted to enroll his five-year old son at Noyes Elementary School in 1944, yet was rejected based upon race. Mr. Davis, a Harvard Law School graduate and co-founder of the National Negro Congress, pursued legal action against DC Public Schools. His son would’ve been required to walk 17 blocks to school, despite being less than half a mile from four all-white schools. After a legal battle involving discussions of home rule, race, and constitutionality, the U.S. Congress allotted $44,000 dollars to build a school for the Black residents of Brookland in June 1944.
A temporary school building opened in 1945 (as the Crummell School Annex) at 1325 Jackson Street NE. Soon after, the Board of Education approved renaming the new school after Lucy Diggs Slowe, a prominent DC educator who worked as a public school principal and professor at Howard University.
Designed by Municipal Architect Nathan Wyeth and completed by his successor, Merrell Coe (following Wyeth’s death in 1946), the school officially opened in 1948. Designed in a modern style, the rectangular building is a concrete structure with pre-cast concrete decorative paneling, glass blocks, and horizontal banks of window openings. Upon first opening, the space had five available classrooms and capacity for 180 pupils.
Located at the intersection of Jackson and 14th Streets NE in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC, the new school quickly became overcrowded. Conditions were inadequate for learning and created dangerous fire hazards. In turn, parents used strikes, community organizing, and student protest to communicate their dissatisfaction and demands for better educational space. Overcrowding at Slowe was finally resolved through the legal desegregation of public schools in the District in the landmark Supreme Court case of Bolling v. Sharpe, which went into effect in 1954.
Despite a building renovation in 1967 that added a library and additional classroom/storage space, the school continued to face consistent problems. The displacement and eventual decline of Black residents in DC in the 1960s and 1970s, combined with the increase in charter schools in the 1990s, resulted in the closure of Slowe Elementary School in 2009. Today, the building houses the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter School.
As part of DC’s local history and the larger national history of Blacks organizing for equality, the Slowe Elementary School is significant as both a space for civil rights activism in the realm of education and an early example of modern architecture.
DC Inventory: October 28, 2021
National Register: December 20, 2021