by Ann Kessler
I would suspect if you were asked about the first public school to be built in Forest Hills, you wouldn’t answer that it was an African American school or that it was built here in 1866. But that is true, and here’s the story of that long forgotten school.
If you look at old maps of Washington, such as the 1894 “The Vicinity of Washington, D.C.” map by Griffith Morgan Hopkins (above, see the full versionon the Library of Congress web site), you will find a public school located in our neighborhood on Military Road near Broad Branch Road. This Military Road more or less parallels what would later become Grant Road and then finally Davenport Street. There is no name given to this school on the map, and no indication of who it served or why it’s there.
Before the Civil War there had been no public schools for African American children outside of downtown Washington and Georgetown. In 1864 Congress passed a law providing for the construction of “colored” or African American schools in the county of Washington. At that time Washington was made up of two cities: Washington city (that is, the downtown area below Florida Avenue) and Georgetown; and “the county.” All the land outside of Washington and Georgetown, about 37 square miles, was considered the county. The county was less populated, with large landholders owning most of the land.
According to the November 1867 school census, the whole county of Washington had a school population of 9,145, while the city of Washington had 106,052 students. In the section of Washington between the Potomac River and Rock Creek lived 2,054 students, 1,516 of them white, and 538 African American. The county had a lot of development yet to come.The Board of Trustees of the Public Schools voted to buy a lot for a school for African American children on the old Military Road (now Davenport Street) near Broad Branch Road on November 30, 1865. Why this location was chosen is unknown. Perhaps it was selected since it was an intersection of two of the few main roads in a rural area.
Whatever the reason, in April of 1866, a half-acre lot was purchased from John Magee and his wife in square 2262 of what is now Forest Hills. This land would be used for the building of a one room school house. Erected in 1866, it was a frame building, 26 feet by 34 feet, costing $960. In the D.C. Public School records this school is called the Old Military Road School (as opposed to the newer Military Road School on what is now Military Road) or Grant Road Colored.
The first teacher of the school was Mary Boffey, who taught six boys and three girls, first in a rented house and then in the new school building which opened in March 1866. Her successor was a white male teacher named B.M. Martin who taught, on average, 26 students a day during the school year 1867-1868. Historian Judith Beck Helm reports that these African American students came from the Broad Branch Road settlement and Fort Reno. Children of African American workers at nearby farms might also have been in attendance.
We don’t have any record of how the school functioned in those early years, but we do know that the building was not constructed to last. According to DC Public School records, this Old Military Road School was closed in 1882, with the African American students being transferred to Grant Road School (near present day Murch). The building was completely abandoned in 1908-1909 and returned to the D.C. Commissioners. This land, near present day Linnean Avenue and Davenport Street, was valuable, and the lots 808 and 809 were subsequently sold to adjacent homeowners.
While no remnants of the Old Military Road School survive, it was significant as one of the first African American public schools in Washington County after the Civil War.
District of Columbia. Board of Commissioners. History of Schools for the Colored Population in the District of Columbia. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1871. Also known as M.B. Goodwin’s Special Report on the District of Columbia to the U.S. Bureau of Education, for 1869.
District of Columbia Board of Education. Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia for the year ended June 30, 1905. Vol. IV. Report of the Board of Education. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905.
District of Columbia Public Schools. Public School Buildings – Past and Present. Manuscript, revised June 1972, at Sumner School Archives.
Helm, Judith Beck. Tenleytown, D.C.: Country Village into City Neighborhood. Washington: Tennally Press, 1981.
Thanks to Anne Rollins for her help with this article.