Built between 1951 and 1952, Spingarn High School was constructed for the education of African American students, meant 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. Its postwar construction represented an attempt to satisfy African American parents while keeping alive the “separate but equal” regime in the public schools. Spingarn was thus Washington's last “Black” high school, and the first built in 36 years. Its opening was a major event, drawing not only the family of its namesake but also such luminaries as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and John Hope Franklin. Only two years later, the process of desegregation began.
The school’s name honored Joel Elias Spingarn, a renowned literary critic, professor of comparative literature at Columbia, and one of the early founders of the NAACP, who served 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 after high school. It included a housekeeping suite for home economics students, clothes-making classrooms, modern workshops such as carpentry and print shops, and laboratories.
Spingarn is also the last of the District’s era of Classical and Colonial Revival-style schools. In its time, it 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.
DC Inventory: November 29, 2012
National Register: May 12, 2014