Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts sits in the Dallas Arts District and connects to a past of providing education and advancement opportunities to some of Dallas’ earliest African American students.
Wall art popping with color, student mimes practicing their craft, ballet practices in session, alumni tours moving about the hallways – these are some of the things you may find on a given Monday afternoon at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
An 8-minute walk from Pearl/Arts District Station, the arts magnet sits on Flora Street as the only school in the Dallas Arts District. The school links to a past of providing education and advancement opportunities to some of Dallas’ earliest African American high school students while shaping future creative leaders.
Photograph of John Wesley Ray, the first Principal of Colored School No. 1 in Dallas from 1888-1882. Source: J. Mason Brewer, ed., A History of the Dallas High School for Negroes (Friends of the Dallas Public Library, 1991).
The school’s origins trace back to the late 19th century when African American educator, John Wesley Ray came to Dallas and began setting up private schools for African American students in the area.
In 1888, Ray functioned as principal of Colored School No. 1, which produced Dallas’ first three African American high school graduates in the summer of 1892.
Later that summer, the Dallas Board of Education established the first official high school for African American students in Dallas that the city system recognized. The school was called Colored School No. 2, or Dallas Colored High School.
As time would have it, the school evolved. In 1922, the school took on the name Booker T. Washington High School and functioned as the only high school in Dallas for African Americans for 17 years.
After a period as a technical school that began in 1955, Booker T. Washington High School evolved into an arts magnet school in 1976, adding the words “for the Performing and Visual Arts” to its title. The change was in response to a court order on desegregation.
“The school’s connection to Dallas’ history gives the community hope,” Fern Tresvan, Director of Artistic Programs at Booker T. Washington said. “It’s an example of hard work yielding something.”
On a Monday afternoon, about a couple hours past lunchtime, Bettye Morgan, Booker T. Washington Technical High School class of 1956, toured the current school with a local Dallas historian and a student guide. She mentioned that she enjoyed her music teacher and held a photo of her mother, who graduated from the school in 1936. In Morgan’s case, the school’s significance was both generational and historical.
Bettye Morgan, Booker T. Washington Technical High School class of 1956, holds a photo of her mother, who graduated from the school in 1936.
Other notable alumni of the school include jazz saxophonists Keith Loftis, Broadway actress Alysha Deslorieux and multi-Grammy winning singer and songwriter Erykah Badu.
Jasmine Parrish, class of 2021 and a current sophomore at the high school, said the alumni who visit the school share their experiences and inspire the students to excel. The young violinist rides DART to go home after school rehearsals.
“After a long day, it’s nice to hop on board, sit back, relax and people-watch,” Parrish said.
DART helps connect local cities to the school, Tresvan said.
“We see children get of DART to get to our school and we are grateful for that,” she said.
As with many schools, Booker T. Washington also prepares student to take on career paths that may not reflect an arts focus, Tresvan said.
Lance Jackson, class of 2019, aims to become a lawyer, and said the school has prepared him to work with people from different backgrounds. As the senior president of the school’s Black Student Union, Jackson lead the tour with Morgan and the historian that Monday. His favorite thing about the school is that it encourages a willingness to be creative.
Booker T. Washington serves as a platform for students to nurture and showcase their talents. By cultivating African American students’ creativity, the school fosters their contribution to the arts, Cedric Barrett, Dean of Operations at the school said.
“Examining its past, present and future, the school continues to form a legacy of building leaders for tomorrow while standing on the shoulders of past students,” he said.
Susan K. Elliott Hamm, Fulfilling the Vision: Celebrating One Dallas Arts School’s Impact on the World (Fulfilling the Vision, Inc., 2017).
J. Mason Brewer, ed., A History of the Dallas High School for Negroes (Friends of the Dallas Public Library, 1991).
Dallas Public Library, African American Schools in Dallas Marion Butts Collection (https://dallaslibrary2.org/mbutts/assets/lessons/L6-schools/Marion%20Butts-%20African%20American%20Schools%20in%20Dallas(PPT).pdf), accessed February 26, 2019.
Dallas City Hall, Booker T. Washington High School Landmark Designation Report (http://dallascityhall.com/departments/sustainabledevelopment/historicpreservation/HP%20Documents/Landmark%20Structures/Booker%20T.%20Washington%20High%20School%20Landmark%20Designation%20Report.pdf), accessed February 26, 2019.