When the building that houses Cardozo High School was first constructed in 1914-1916, it was called Central High School and for the next thirty-five years was open to white students only. Then in 1950 city residents mobilized to demand that Central—prized for its majestic views, terraced lawns, gleaming laboratories, multiple gymnasiums, and storied alumni—be transferred to the "colored division” of DC Public Schools.
Central High School was significantly under-enrolled by 1948, more than a decade after white families had begun abandoning the city's public schools as more white families moved to the suburbs or sent their children to private schools. At the same time, the all-black Cardozo High School, named for prominent educator Francis Cardozo, and located at 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, NW became over-crowded as black families moved into the city. There were so many students that they attended school in three shifts and had classes in the basement, in hallways, and outdoors.
A 1949 study of the DC public schools, commissioned by Congress, recommended closing Cardozo altogether and contemplated alternative uses for Central, fueling demands by residents that Central be opened to black students. When activists delivered a 10,000-signature petition to the school board and garnered support from groups across the city using the slogan "Central for Cardozo," the board finally voted to move Cardozo into the Central High School building in time for the 1950-51 school year. Central High School was renamed Cardozo.
The school was later a venue for civil rights rallies. In 1967, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to an audience of 3,800 in Cardozo's stadium. He had come to DC to support community control of federally funded urban renewal in Shaw. In May 1968, a National Welfare Rights Organization Mothers Day march concluded at Cardozo. Six thousand people came to hear speeches by Coretta Scott King and Etta Horn, among others.