Spingarn High School was built in 1951-1952 for the education of African American students. Spingarn was erected to relieve the overcrowding of the other segregated high schools and had been planned for that purpose since the late 1930s. Desegregation lawsuits of the late 1940s and early 1950s finally prodded the District to construct the building. Planned since the 1930s, its construction after the war represented an attempt to satisfy African American parents while keeping alive the “separate-but-equal” regime in the public schools. Spingarn was thus the last “black” high school Washington, and the first built in 36 years. Its opening was a major event, drawing not only its namesake’s family but such luminaries as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and John Hope Franklin. But it was only two years later that the process of desegregation began.
The school’s namesake honored Joel Elias Spingarn, a renowned literary critic, professor of comparative literature at Columbia, and one of the early founders of the NAACP, serving as both the chairman of the board and president during his 26-year tenure with the organization. Spingarn High School provided a complete curriculum to prepare its students for life post-high school. The school included a housekeeping suite for home economics students, clothes-making classrooms, modern workshops, including carpentry and print shop, and laboratories
Spingarn is also the last of the District’s era of Classical and Colonial Revival style schools. Spingarn was considered one of the most modern schools in the District. The school’s long-deferred construction coupled with its siting on a campus of earlier African American schools is probably responsible for this architectural anomaly. After the war, and under the direction of Municipal Architect Merrel Coe, the District turned to a more functionalist, modern vocabulary.
DC Inventory: November 29, 2012.
National Register listing: May 12, 2014