The 2022-2023 school year began this week at the University of the District of Columbia, so we thought this was a good time to rerun this 2016 article on the origins of this historically Black university, which is also DC’s sole public university, and the only urban land-grant university in the United States. The comments on the original article are worth your time, too.
Cleveland Leon Dennard (1929-1992) – a dreamer and a doer – in many ways changed the face of Van Ness.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson’s administration recruited him to form and lead Washington Technical Institute, a predecessor of the University of the District of Columbia. Dennard set out to change, for thousands of non-affluent students, the fact that only “economically affluent and extraordinarily talented” DC high school graduates were assured of furthering their education.
WTI’s largely African-American student body also changed the racial profile of Van Ness/Forest Hills. Only about three percent of the neighborhood’s residents in the mid-1960s were black, including diplomats and live-in help. WTI would be far from the homes of most of its students, in DC’s whitest and most affluent ward. Some urged Dennard to pick a permanent location in a different sort of neighborhood. But he stuck by Van Ness. Indeed, he called it a “jewel of a location.”
Working skillfully with Congress and three presidents, and reaching out to DC officials, business leaders and neighbors, he secured land and federal funding, overturned contracting practices which excluded black-owned architecture firms, and built what is today’s main UDC campus.
A college student at age 16
Born on February 17, 1929 in Sebring, Florida, Cleveland Dennard was the ninth of ten children. His father worked as a farm laborer, a farmer and a pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. His parents were not affluent, yet they provided for and instilled faith in their children, urging each to develop his or her full potential.
Dennard was extraordinarily talented. He entered Florida A&M at age 16 and earned his bachelor’s at the age of 19, laying the groundwork for simultaneously teaching physics, coaching football, and managing a food cooperative enterprise which he had established in Montgomery, Alabama. He later held teaching and management positions in Alabama, Georgia and New York, and earned a master’s in industrial education and a doctorate in education management.
Dennard’s intellect and versatility would serve him well as WTI’s founding and only president. He served from 1967 to 1977 during a civil rights revolution and backlash. Congressional committees then set funding priorities for DC. A segregationist Democrat, John L. McMillan of South Carolina, chaired the House of Representatives Committee on the District of Columbia.
Dennard’s mastery of issues and photographic memory dazzled Congress. He would testify without any notes about huge reports, which he did not open. He would respond to a question about a point made on one page by referring to information on another page which he’d specifically name by number, two or three hundred pages later!
Dennard won support of powerful allies not only on Capitol Hill, but also in the White House. He worked well with administrations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson (who had lived in nearby Forest Hills, at 4921 30th Place NW, as a U.S. senator), Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
After a brief chat with President Johnson on October 12, 1967, Dennard wrote to Johnson of “my hope that the Washington Technical Institute will serve as one of the vehicles for moving the urban resident from limited capability through precise skill and technical development into meaningful employment and personal dignity.”
The creation of WTI
The Washington Technical Institute emerged out of Congressional compromise as an independent public institution of higher education.
Senator Wayne Morse, a Democrat from Oregon, had led a drive in the 1960s to establish one new, broad-ranging public liberal arts institution for DC, conferring bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He thwarted attempts by DC Teachers College – with roots pre-dating the Civil War – to become that institution. Instead, Congress provided that a new Federal City College (FCC) would someday absorb DCTC.
But Senator Morse could not subordinate technical training to a new FCC, as he wished. Congress authorized creation of both Washington Technical Institute and Federal City College in 1966.
Congressman Ancher Nelsen (R-MN) insisted on an independent WTI governed by a board appointed by the president of the United States, rather than one selected by DC officials. In February 1967, President Johnson appointed a nine-member DC Board of Vocational Education as WTI’s trustees. The leader of that board was Samuel Nabrit, a scientist, academic, former President of Texas Southern University, civil rights advocate and the first black man to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission. The board recruited Dennard (who arrived in the fall of 1967) and it immediately sought a campus where WTI could open quickly.
Temporary home at Van Ness
WTI’s first home was supposed to be temporary. By chance, the National Bureau of Standards had decided to leave its venerable Van Ness campus and build new labs and offices in Gaithersburg, Maryland. WTI seized an opportunity to use buildings and grounds abandoned by NBS south of Van Ness Street.
WTI had rent-free leases of from three to five years, thanks to President Johnson’s administration, but Dennard wanted Van Ness as a permanent campus location. His attachment to the location extended to his family life. He, his wife and four daughters lived in the newly-built Van Ness North apartments. His younger daughters attended local schools.
Unenthusiastic neighbors; strong competitors
The Van Ness neighborhood did not welcome WTI warmly. Some neighbors openly objected. Seventy came to a December 11 Forest Hills Citizens Association meeting at a Connecticut Avenue church. Dr. Darcangelo D’Amore, a psychiatrist, decried a “generation gap, intellectual gap and envy gap” he anticipated between Connecticut Avenue residents and students. The Washington Post reported unnamed speakers who “raised the specter of ‘unskilled youngsters who work with their hands’ creating traffic jams and causing crimes in a neighborhood of ‘elderly retired people of high intellectual standards.'” Only a “few residents spoke in favor of the location.” The next day’s newspapers headlined “Technical School Site Opposed” (in the Post) and “Forest Hills Calls School Crime Threat” (in the Evening Star).
Prominent attorney Charles Horsky, chairman of DC’s Board of Higher Education (which was also the Federal City Colleges’s board of trustees), foresaw WTI picking a different permanent location and leaving Van Ness after five years or less. That’s what FCC did, and some urged WTI to do so, too. But WTI bided its time, although its board had scant hope for a permanent Van Ness location.
After all, affluent Ward 3 did not seek WTI at Van Ness; and competitors sought those 68 acres of federal land. The Department of State wanted land south of Van Ness Street for new chanceries and a new Organization of American States secretariat building. Also, the Army’s Harry Diamond Lab, which had acquired control of 35 acres with buildings north of Van Ness Street, preferred to stay. If the Army did leave, the federal General Services Administration wanted a new federal office building.
Classes began in 1968, south of Van Ness Street, notwithstanding neighborly skepticism – which Dennard worked to overcome.
Dennard reached out to neighborhood associations, four of which co-sponsored a long, February 1968 community meeting at Sidwell Friends School. The Washington Daily News reported that objections to “those people from the inner city” were heavily applauded, with counter-applause for Dennard’s speech about education’s historic role in America and need of “building an outreach from the inner city.” Forest Hills Citizens Association President Leon Brown supported WTI. Seven years later, another FHCA president, Katherine Janka, wrote GSA that “we have had the experience of several years of operation of the school at the Van Ness site with few, if any, detrimental results” and Van Ness was a “reasonable choice” for locating WTI.
Complicated planning process during President Nixon’s Administration (1969-1974)
It was President Richard Nixon who ended years of uncertainty about WTI’s permanent location. WTI’s board preferred Van Ness over a list of National Capital Planning Commission alternatives. But planning for the NBS site was complicated because it was federally-owned land and, in 1970, NCPC was considering a preliminary master plan for development of chanceries, OAS headquarters and a federal office building. Adding WTI would be a challenge.
Making front-page headlines, President Nixon visited WTI in March 1970, bringing Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch. They talked with President Dennard about WTI’s campus search.
The White House established an interagency task force which recommended Van Ness. President Nixon announced his support in an April 1971 message to Congress. In the end, WTI won a permanent Van Ness campus north of Van Ness Street.
Toward building a new Van Ness campus and breaking a federal racial barrier
Dennard wanted DC-based Bryant & Bryant, in joint venture with national, Minnesota-based Ellerbe firm, to lead the design team. Bryant & Bryant made its headquarters in Forest Hills at the Van Ness Center (4301 Connecticut Avenue NW), where it became for a time the leading African-American owned firm in the United States.
During Walter Washington’s mayoralty, Charles Bryant broke the racial ceiling on designing DC public schools. However, since the federal government, not DC, was going to fund and build WTI’s new campus, federal officials would select a design team. Their short lists did not include black-owned architectural firms. Dennard insisted that a black-owned firm must have a full-fledged joint venture role, not just be a subcontractor.
Bryant & Bryant and Ellerbe Architects did master planning for Dennard in 1972 pro bono. When the time came to choose a design team, Dennard – supported by Congressman Nelsen, his chief congressional ally – prevailed on the GSA and its administrator, Arthur Sampson, to approve and fund Bryant & Bryant-Ellerbe joint venture participation – a precedent. (See Mitchell, The Crisis of the African-American Architect: Conflicting Cultures of Architecture and (Black) Power (iUniverse 2003)).
Bryant & Bryant followed “New Brutalist” modernist style which was then all the rage. Construction of ten new Van Ness buildings took several years. The first buildings were dedicated in 1973.
Cleveland Dennard’s last year at Van Ness
Within a year, another move was afoot in Congress, backed by Dennard, to merge WTI, the DC Teachers College and Federal City College into one institution of higher learning: The University of the District of Columbia. Dennard was a candidate to lead it. Instead it ended his career in Washington. The new UDC board of trustees passed him over in selecting the university’s first president in June 1977. He left in August of that year, but not before spending a year guiding the effort to consolidate three separate, rival entities into one.
UDC historians stress Dennard’s critical role that final year:
“He had maintained firm control of his school, in contrast with the very public disagreements at FCC over administration, management, and curriculum… Dennard alone had sufficient stature to make the process of consolidation credible. In addition… [t]he appointment of Dennard not only allayed fears that the new university would slight technical education, but reassured those interested in technical education that decisions would be based on hard data.” (Lightman & Zeisel, Since 1851: 160 Years of Scholarship and Achievement in the Nation’s Capital (UDC Press 2011))
Dennard moved on to serve as President of Atlanta University from 1977 to 1983 and later as a management officer and chief operating officer at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change (1983-1992). He was a close and longtime friend of both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. His deeds and dreams aligned with theirs.
The legacy of Cleveland L. Dennard
Under Dennard’s leadership, WTI enabled thousands of local students to better themselves (via what we call pathways to the middle class, nowadays) – an overdue mission; as Dennard observed in November 1974:
“For nearly a century, [DC] high school graduates were systematically denied comprehensive public postsecondary educational opportunity. Only the economically affluent and extraordinarily talented were assured of such opportunity.”
In 1982, UDC named its quadrangle the Cleveland Dennard Plaza. When he died a decade later, the Washington Post recalled:
“A tough, head-knocking, PR-conscious leader, he dominated the direction of the institution for the next nine years, shaping its programs in aerospace, business, engineering, environmental science, public administration and health science.”
Monumental public art (installed 1999 at 16th Street and Arkansas Avenue, NW) – by sculptor Allen Uzikee Nelson, an engineer who had taught at WTI and UDC – memorializes Dennard as “Educator / Visionary / Culturalist.”
I am grateful for access to University of the District of Columbia Archives and assistance of UDC Archivist Christopher T. Anglim, of LBJ Library, of Urban Institute Senior Research Associate Leah Hendey, of historians Barbara D. Bates and Ann Kessler, and of Beth Dennard, Judy Dennard Banks and Michael Goldman.