Exhibit Celebrates Black Excellence at Dunbar High

The Little Rock school has educated African American students for nearly a century.

Flyer for Mosaic Templar's Dunbar Exhibit

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School has been a big part of the African American community in Little Rock for more than 90 years. Courtney Bradford remembers learning about the school’s history from her grandfather who worked at the school.

“Dunbar was all over my house, so I’m like grandpa, what’s that?” Bradford says.

Bradford’s grandfather worked at Dunbar until 1980 and during his tenure he taught chemistry and coached a championship football team. Though she tried to fight entering into the education field, Bradford credits her grandfather with eventually becoming a teacher herself. Bradford did not attend Dunbar, but she feels connected to the school through her family.

“That’s why I say I consider myself to be the legacy because he was my first teacher and I’ve taken that to the moon I guess,” she says with a laugh.

Things have now come full circle for Bradford who is teaching one of her grandfather’s former students this semester. In addition to teaching, Bradford is also a curator at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock where she helped organize an exhibit on Dunbar High School that’s on display through Dec. 17.

Black School Excellence: The Legacy of Dunbar is a reimagining of MTCC’s first permanent exhibition that was on display from 2008 to 2010. The current exhibit focuses on how students and staff were able to display excellence despite having to overcome obstacles like not having the best materials or teachers not being paid the same as their white counterparts, Bradford says.

“I want people to be proud of the legacy that so many people worked so hard to create when there was so much against them…this also speaks to the strength of a community and what people are able to accomplish when the community comes together,” she says.

Located on the corner of Wright Avenue and Ringo Street, Dunbar Junior and Senior High School and Junior College was completed in 1929 as the Negro School of Industrial Arts. It was part of a comprehensive nationwide program — funded primarily by Sears, Roebuck and Company president Julius Rosenwald — to improve the quality of public education for African Americans in the early 1900s, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. It was one of 338 Rosenwald Schools built in Arkansas. 

Later named for Black author Paul Dunbar, the school was one of seven schools in the United States built for African American students and named for him. In 1955, the board of trustees terminated the junior college program and Dunbar became a junior high as new facilities for Horace Mann High School were under construction. Though its purpose has changed over the years, Dunbar remains in the Little Rock School District and is now Dunbar Magnet Middle School. 

“The people love Dunbar so much they have a national alumni association and it’s a celebration,” Bradford says.

The alumni association continues to organize reunions and provides funding for scholarships and other projects. The group also helped Paul Laurence Dunbar High School get placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

For the new exhibit, Bradford has incorporated components from the original exhibition, a traveling exhibition and artifacts from the MTCC collection and the National Dunbar Horace Mann Alumni Association. The oldest object on display is a 1932 diploma. There’s also graduation and prom invitations from the late 1930s and early 1940s. 

“It’s so neat to see them because you can tell that these were handmade,” she says. 

Museum visitors can view these artifacts and others that are part of Black School Excellence: The Legacy of Dunbar through Dec. 17. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday and admission is free. 

MTCC will open its doors to the public this Sunday for a special holiday open house that’s combining two events — Cocoa and Carols and Say It Ain’t’ Say’s Sweet Potato Pie Contest. The holiday celebration will feature music, crafts and a visit from Black Santa and Mrs. Claus. MTCC is also collecting items for the Robert “Say” McIntosh Stop the Violence Toy Drive through Friday. 

More information is available on Mosaic Templars Cultural Center’s website or their Facebook page

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.