The Collegian
Thursday, October 01, 2020

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A review of Alison Stewart's "First Class"

If readers did not previously know the connection between the inventor of the blood bank, the first African-American Cabinet Member, the first black graduate of the Naval Academy and the first black Army General, then they might be interested in Alison Stewart's new book "First Class."

Each of the aforementioned attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., before moving on to their accomplishments. Stewart's book covers the complete history of the historically black high school, beginning with its inception and ending with the recent rebuilding of the school.

The book also provides a look at the value of education to the civil rights movement through the lens of this one school. Stewart said she wanted readers to realize after reading the book that education was a part of black history, and that educational success was really about the quality of the teachers.

"First Class" is particularly compelling because of the insights into the many fascinating characters that populate the history of Dunbar High School. Not only were the students extremely accomplished, but the staff was also of the highest caliber during the school's golden years. For example, one of the school's principals was the first black graduate of Harvard University.

One of the characters who stood out is Edward Brooke. Stewart said he had been the most charismatic person she had interviewed, and that his devotion to the country was evident. Even at 94 years old, Brooke is still energetic enough that his mind can go anywhere, Stewart said.

Since the story follows the history of the school, no one character is consistently present throughout the entire book. However, this allows for a large number of alumni and teachers to make appearances that evidence their great works.

Stewart said, "The expectations were so high for those kids." And she makes it clear in her book that the high expectations were just an accepted part of the school. Readers will be inspired to see how the school excels during this time frame.

This inspiring story unfortunately ends with the eventual decline of Dunbar High School. The problems that plague the Washington school system eventually affected the school, and the last vestige of Dunbar's recent greatness were in athletics.

Stewart said she didn't believe the school could ever again be the school that it had been, but she thought it could use its past to improve. The school recently unveiled a new $122 million building this year. This new building brings with it the hopes for a better future. Currently, Stewart said, the biggest improvement has been in attendance.

Stewart wanted to tell this story because both of her parents had attended the school in the 1940s, and her grandfather had also attended the school, she said. Both of her parents are featured in the book, and their story is told lovingly.

Stewart is best known as a broadcast journalist, and she said she had initially thought about making this story as a documentary. However, when she got deeper into the story, she decided that the story could work more easily as a book.

She said she hoped to write a children's book next.

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"First Class" provides a stunning look at the achievements that occurred at Dunbar High School. This book is practically necessary reading for those interested in education and civil rights.

Contact reporter Brennen Lutz at brennen.lutz@richmond.edu

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