by David Jonas Bardin
A major landmark in our neighborhood is the University of the District of Columbia’s main campus. Though it’s smack in the middle of our neighborhood now, UDC’s roots were spread throughout the city, and sprouted before the Civil War. That history may shed some light on its current financial issues, its organization, and its governance.
UDC’s first annual report, published nearly 40 years ago, summarized its history as “at the same time very old and very new:
“The seeds of higher education for the District were planted in 1851 when Myrtilla Miner founded a school for “Colored girls.” In 1879, Miner Normal School became part of the public school system. Similarly, Washington Normal School, established in 1873 as a school for white girls, was renamed Wilson Normal School in 1913 (after James O. Wilson, Washington’s first superintendent of public schools). In 1929, by Act of Congress, both schools became four-year teachers colleges and the only institutions of public higher education in the city. Years later, after the long-awaited Supreme Court school desegregation decision, the two schools united in 1955 to form the District of Columbia Teachers College.”
Two decades later, that college would be merged into a new university. And today, UDC is the only public university in the District. It is an accredited institution of higher education, the nation’s only urban public land grant university, and one of 106 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
In 1975, a brand new DC Council compelled three rival and independent-minded public institutions to join together under one governing UDC board, despite their cultural differences. All were very affordable, low-tuition schools.
Congressman Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), then chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on DC, had pressed for a merger. Congress authorized it in 1974. But true consolidation was hard and slow – very slow. It was still incomplete ten years later. (Another decade beyond that, in 1996, the DC Council attached the former Antioch Law School to UDC.)
UDC’s new Board of Trustees held its first meeting on May 20, 1976. Its founding chairman was Ronald H. Brown (1941-1996), later Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton. UDC’s first annual report (for 1975-1976) summarized total enrollment of 13,353 DC resident students in its three component units. It did not estimate FTEs, or “full-time equivalent” students, or extension service outreach. The report planned for three campuses. And in recruiting for UDC’s first chief executive officer, the trustees described combined enrollment of all three units as 13,386 and combined faculty as 728.
Even the most conservative enrollment projections received by UDC’s Board of Trustees as part of a Master Consolidation Plan in 1978 – for 12,810 full-time or FTE students in 1982-83 – proved overly optimistic. The most generous estimates ranged as high as 20,000 students by 1985.
As of Fall 2013, UDC had 5,363 students enrolled in degree courses. Most of them were part-time students – which translates into 3,631 full-time equivalent students. Almost 40,000 more participate in land-grant extension service and workforce development training programs, but not for academic credit. UDC conferred 705 degrees in academic year 2011-2012.
One of UDC’s three original units – Washington Technical Institute (WTI) – occupied part of the original Van Ness Campus of the National Bureau of Standards in our neighborhood.
The largest unit, Federal City College (FCC), was at several downtown locations, which were all leased.
Both were created by a 1966 Act of Congress and had no prior history.
The third and oldest unit, DC Teachers College (DCTC), was established in 1955 to overcome racial segregation policies and practices of DC’s public education system.
After the Supreme Court held DC’s segregation policy to be unconstitutional in 1954, the DC Board of Education merged its separate colleges for training black teachers and white teachers. The Miner Teachers College at 2709 Georgia Avenue NW and Wilson Teachers College at 1100 Harvard Street NW had been founded in the 19th century.
Miner had pre-Civil War roots.
Myrtilla Miner, a 36-year-old teacher who had borrowed to pay for her own schooling, undertook a sacred mission: Almost single-handed, she “invaded” DC, “the very citadel of slavery,” in 1851 to help “despised and neglected” free black girls become educated women and teachers in their own right. Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass (whom I quote) had advised Miner against risking her life for a project he thought was sure to fail. He later praised her success.
Miner (1815-1864) was “born into a large family of small income” in central New York state. Her father was a hops farmer. She had twelve siblings. She scrimped and borrowed to pay for her own schooling, wanting to be a teacher from a young age. She even taught at a nearby rural school at age 15. After studies completed in 1841, she taught in Rhode Island; Rochester, New York; Mississippi; Friendship, New York; and Pennsylvania before going to Washington with $100, choosing to plunge forward rather than delaying to raise more funds. Frailty on top of spirituality may have made her all the more determined.
Miner’s black students had virtually no other way of receiving even a most basic education. Free black people in DC rented space to Miner and enrolled their daughters in her classes – first six girls, then swelling to 40 with a waiting list. She taught general education subjects successfully – in one room, then larger quarters, then on rural land purchased south of Dupont Circle with donations she solicited, including $1,000 out of royalties from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She enlisted a board of distinguished abolitionists.
Miner persevered until 1860 in a very hostile environment. She had braved mobs of “rowdies” and arson attempts. DC’s own slave-owning elite and slavery apologists railed against her program. But she achieved a great deal in the nine years she ran the school. Even before her death and burial in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery in 1864, several of her pupils were teaching at their own schools.
After the end of slavery, Congress recognized and buttressed the institution Miner had pioneered. Its successor and another “normal school” to train white teachers were changed by Congress into four-year teachers colleges in 1929.
Successfully integrated under the leadership of President Walter E. Hager (previously president of Wilson Teachers College), District of Columbia Teachers College had a majority African-American student body in 1955, with a racially-integrated administration and faculty. Key members of Congress who controlled DC budgets were avowed segregationists and did not appreciate successful integration. At one time, DCTC trained one out of four DC public school teachers. Denied resources it sought, however, DCTC’s accreditation was threatened. In 1966, Paul P. Cooke became its president, and he set to setting things right.
Under his eight-year leadership, the college revived, tripled stagnant enrollment, and bolstered accreditation.
DCTC expanded by adding a Masters program, evening program, extensive in-service program, career development program, and programs to prepare educational personnel other than teachers.
In DCTC’s last year, 1975-1976, UDC reported that DCTC and its sister schools FCC and WTI, combined, conferred 252 education degrees – mostly bachelor’s (120) and master’s (109) – and only 23 associate’s degrees. DCTC’s catalog listed an instructional and administrative faculty of 136 in 1975-1976, including 22 PhDs.
In 2011-2012, UDC conferred only 72 education degrees, of which 32 were associate’s degrees in Education and 32 more were bachelor’s of science in Health Education. (The other eight were five BAs, two MAs, and one MA in Teaching (MAT).)
UDC Community College had 228 education majors (with a full-time continuing faculty of eight) as of the Fall of 2012. Its College of Arts & Sciences had 163 education majors, with a full-time continuing faculty of two.
Some of the declines came as UDC retrenched because of chronic financial crises. But also, market demands for teachers change. Approaches to training teachers evolve.
UDC does not know how many of today’s DC teachers are alumni. It tries to work with DC government to align teacher training programs with the needs of public schools. UDC’s consultant predicts strong demand for more teachers in the Washington metropolitan area, suggesting niches UDC might fill. Given limited resources, UDC still grapples with questions, including which of its lower-enrollment education programs to retain in the short run – questions the Board of Trustees deferred for more information after public discussion with its president, provost, and deans on November 14th, 2013.
What became of UDC’s other components also provides context on today’s issues. However it must await another article.
I owe especial debt to Professor and UDC Archivist Christopher Anglim, for his deeply informed and patient guidance, and for access to archival material of the Learning Resources Division. Others at UDC and in the neighborhood have generously helped with data and suggestions.
-Since 1851: 160 Years of Scholarship and Achievement in the Nation’s Capital, Lightman & Zeisel (UDC Press 2011)
-UDC’s history page at udc.edu
-Annual Report 1975-76, UDC
-Fact Book: Fall 2011-Fall 2012, UDC
-Chronology of University of the District of Columbia and Its Predecessor Institutions: 1851-2012, Anglim (2013; filed UDC LRD Archives)
-Critical Junctures: 1977-1987 (PDF), Racine & Rode, UDC (1989)
-Miner Teachers College: The First Century, Nelson (1973)
-Myrtilla Miner, a Memoir, O’Connor (PDF; 1885)
-Obituary of Paul P. Cooke, Washington Post, July 20, 2010.
-DCTC Catalog 1975-1976