Founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, M Street High School navigated multiple makeshift locations until 1890 when Congress earmarked $112,000 for the construction of a dedicated building. The school ultimately found its permanent home at 128 M Street, NW in a red-brick structure, designed by the Office of the Building Inspector. Its facade is adorned with colonial accents and the interior includes a rectangular floor plan.
Under the visionary leadership of its principals, M Street High School defied societal norms and provided a rigorous curriculum that surpassed the offerings of many white schools. The curriculum was meticulously organized into tracks – academic, scientific, technical and business – offering a diverse array of subjects. M Street High School's graduates were not merely students; they were pioneers, earning spots in leading colleges and universities across the nation despite the systemic challenges of segregation.
The school’s innovative principals included: Francis L. Cardozo, Sr., who rose from adversity to become the Treasurer of South Carolina; Dr. Winfield Scott Montgomery, a medical doctor born to enslaved parents who fought for his education; Anna J. Cooper, an author, educator, and civil rights activist; Judge Robert H. Terrell, Harvard graduate and the first black judge in the District of Columbia; and William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson, who fostered excellence in academics and student athletics. M Street’s last principal, Edward Christopher Williams, made an impact as a library sciences scholar, leaving a legacy that extended beyond M Street into other Black educational institutions, such as Howard University.
The majority of M Street High School’s faculty held advanced degrees. Prime examples include Carter G. Woodson, a self-taught scholar turned prominent historian, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, laying the groundwork for celebrating Black history and contributions. Christian Fleetwood, organizer of the Cadets Corps, set the stage for discipline and leadership, exemplified through the Junior ROTC. Gordon David Houston's pioneering work in teaching Old English literature showcased the diversity of academic pursuits at M Street, as did his later role as Dunbar High School's principal. Hugh M. Browne came to M Street with a degree from Princeton’s Theological School as an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church. He taught physics at M Street High School and showcased his talent as an inventor by patenting a device to prevent water backflow in cellars. Garnet C. Wilkinson, a graduate, instructor, and later one of Dunbar High School’s principals, shaped Washington's reputation for black educational excellence, emphasizing vocational education and the need for specialized schools. Mary Church Terrell worked for civil rights and women’s equality, becoming the first black woman on the District of Columbia’s Board of Education.
M Street High School’s commitment to exceptional leadership produced alumni who would go on to influence American academia, law, architecture, medicine, and art. Graduate Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Training School for Girls in 1908, empowering African-American women through education. Charles Hamilton Houston, a legal luminary, mentored Thurgood Marshall and played a pivotal role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Hilyard Robinson, a modernist architect, shaped DC's skyline with iconic buildings like the Langston Terrace Dwellings and Howard University’s campus. Dr. Iona Rollin Whipper, a skilled physician specializing in obstetrics and one of the only African American female physicians of her time, advocated for women’s healthcare in various parts of America. Dr. Whipper created a home for pregnant Black teen mothers in DC and supported educational initiatives in the rural South. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander earned the first Ph.D. in economics for an African American and became the first Black woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the country’s first Black brigadier general, symbolized progress for African Americans in the U.S. Army during the New Deal era. James R. Europe, a renowned ragtime and jazz musician, led the African American music scene in New York City. Robert C. Weaver, a gifted economist and policy maker, became the first Black man to serve in the presidential cabinet as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
As the school's population grew, the original building could no longer house the student body. In 1916, the school moved to a new location, Dunbar High School. The original M Street building underwent transformations, serving as M Street Junior High School, Terrell Junior High School, and finally, the Leon L. Perry Middle School.
Today, the M Street High School building, known today as the Perry Center, stands as a historic landmark. Designated on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, the building has been used in a variety of ways as a homeless shelter, a food distribution center, and, for the last two decades, the Perry School Community Services Center, Inc., a non-profit health, and community service center.
The story of M Street High School transcends the physicality of its red-brick structure; it symbolizes the triumph of education over adversity, the resilience of a community, and the enduring legacy of black excellence.
DC Inventory: November 21, 1978
National Register: October 23, 1986