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 had been under-enrolled since the 1940s, as white families left the neighborhood or the city altogether for the suburbs. 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.
Despite overcrowding at Cardozo and under-enrollment at Central, a 1949 report recommended closing Central High School altogether, further encouraging demands by residents that the school 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 1951 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.