100 years of Dallas’ storied Booker T. Washington High School


100 years after opening as Dallas’ first Black high school, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts remains a vital Dallas institution.

DALLAS — In the heart of the the Dallas Arts District, you’ll find a century old red brick building.

The building was once home to the original Booker T. Washington Bulldogs.

Now, graduates of that historic school are sharing treasured stories of their time spent here, celebrating both the school’s centennial and its unique history within the City of Dallas.

“Being a graduate of this high school meant the world,” said Charles “Chuck” Wilson, Class of 1965.”It was a family.”

When the school opened in 1922, it was the only public high school for Black students in the City of Dallas.

“Well, everybody was bused in,” explained A. Shaw-Smith, Class of 1966.

For decades, students traveled to Booker T. Washington High School from communities all across the city. They came from neighborhoods such as Queen City, Wheatley Place, West Dallas, The Bottoms in Oak Cliff, Hamilton Park and more.

But some alumni will tell you segregation wasn’t top of mind for many of the teens who roamed these hallways back then.

“It was a way of life,” said Fred Walker, Class of 1960. “It’s something that you accepted. You were taught. You understood. You accepted.”

Accepting that system of segregated education meant the Bulldogs couldn’t compete against any other schools in the city in athletics. Sports, however, did allow some students to leave town for competitions.

“We would travel to Fort Worth,” Wilson remembered. “We would travel to Waco. We would travel to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Beaumont.”

Many of those Bulldogs considered Booker T. Washington High School a safe haven. They described it as a place where they learned life and technical skills — especially once when trades courses like metal shop and cosmetology were added to the curriculum in 1952.

“Hey, I even got my hair done for 25 cents,” Shaw-Smith said laughed. “So, don’t knock the cosmetology!”

The school helped groom many Black educators, healthcare workers, entrepreneurs, community leaders and philanthropists.

“We were strong,” said Janice Mason-Titus, Class of 1966. “We were tough. We were great.”

In 1976, though, the trajectory of this campus changed. A desegregation order led to Booker T. Washington High School transitioning into Dallas ISD’s arts magnet. It was later renamed the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

The high school’s new mascot? A Pegasus. 

These days, the school stands among the most prestigious training grounds in the country for young artists.

And the pride for this school remains strong as ever.

Alumnus and sculptor Emmanuel Gillespie created a statue of another Booker T. Washington graduate, the legendary Chicago Clubs player Ernie Banks, that now sits on the lawn outside the original school building.

“A lot of people paved the way for us to have this school today,” explained Gillespie, Class of 1985. “And I think that’s very important — that we always know our history, and give thanks for people who came before us and allowed us to be here today.”

The high school has groomed a list of noted artists. Among them are musicians Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove, Norah Jones and other acclaimed actors and dancers who can be seen performing on screens and stages across the globe.

“It means a place of freedom,” explained composer, producer and musician Shaun Martin, Class of 1996, who just took home a Grammy this past weekend for his work with the Dallas-sprung jazz collective Snarky Puppy. “[It’s] a place of creativity. A place of inspiration, hope.”

No matter the era, students past and present describe Booker T. Washington High School as a foundation and a fixture for generations of students.

“For me, it really was a place for me to grow,” said Kennedy Eagleton, Class of 2023.

Booker T. Washington High School remains an historic place that’s encouraged students to soar — just as it has for a century now.

In October 2022, graduates from both eras of Booker T. Washington High School returned to campus for an official Centennial Celebration. But the connection that the products of a Booker T. Washington education have with their alma mater last far beyond one-off commemorations — even ones that honor milestones as impressive as 100 years of molding young minds.

Many alumni from the Booker T. Washington Bulldogs set are still active members of The Washington-Lincoln Alumni Association — a group includes students from graduating classes dating back to 1939. That Association boasts more than 300 members in chapters across the country. It was the group that pushed to make Booker T. Washington High School declared an Historical Landmark in 1989.

The hope with that effort, as ever, was to make sure people remember the good that a school as important and cherished as this one can bring a community like Dallas.

“Don’t forget about this school,” Martin said. “Don’t forget about these kids. Don’t forget about this program.”