Generations of Booker T. Washington High School graduates gathered on the lawn outside the school Sunday, exactly 100 years since its doors first opened on Flora Street.
The Booker T. Jazz Combo played as friends and old classmates greeted each other with hugs and smiles, some sporting branded T-shirts or carrying Booker T. Bulldogs tote bags.
Inside, people looked at old yearbooks and shared stories from their teenage years. They reflected on where they came from and where they wanted to go.
The school was founded in 1922 and served for 17 years as the only high school for Black students in the segregated Dallas school system. It’s since become a hallmark of racial advancement in city.
“School is much more than bricks and mortar, lockers, chalkboards, desks,” Principal and Artistic Director Scott Rudes said. “This school in particular and what it represented to the African American students of Dallas quickly rose to state and national prominence.”
Booker T. Washington has also been a training ground for the performing arts since it became one of the first arts magnets in the country — and one of the best — soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It was renamed to what it’s known as today: Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde highlighted many of the school’s accomplishments such as winning football championships, being the first in the Southwest to offer an accredited course in ”Negro Life and History,” and to organize a chapter of the National Honor Society.
“Here we have two schools, one story. What a milestone,” she said. “For 100 years this school has stood and practiced quality perseverance and excellence.”
Graduates from as early as 1939 along with current students took part in Sunday’s celebration. Most of the conversations centered around legacy, excellence and — maybe most importantly — funk.
All eyes were on four-time Grammy Award winner and 1989 graduate Erykah Badu when she took the stage. Her long hair flowed in the wind and the bells around her ankles jingled when she walked.
“I am Erykah Badu. Superstar,” she started. “Real famous. If you ain’t heard of me I don’t know where you’ve been.”
The crowed cheered, whooped and laughed. Badu, who’s been called the “Godmother of Soul,” is one of the most celebrated soul singers of the modern era.
“But here at Arts Magnet High School… I was just Apples.”
She talked about her favorite memories of mingling with peers and staying late at school to practice on the equipment.
“I also found out though that I only ever wanted one thing in life,” she said. “I just wanted the funk.”
She said “the funk” was something the Booker T. community created.
“There’s something really sacred about this air, about the song of birds, about the amount of oxygen that comes out of the trees,” Badu said. “It’s just so much molecular and there’s billions and billions of atoms of creativity flowing around this area and I can feel it every time I come here.”
She read a poem she wrote in her 1987 creative writing class about a teacher asking students what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Apple’s answer? “I just want the funk.”
“I didn’t know I’d be a singer and my best work is still in me,” she said, reflecting. “I’m reminded of that every time I come here.”
Other alumni talked about the school’s past while they were attending and looked toward its future.
Guinea Bennett-Price, Theatre Conservatory director and 1989 graduate, said it was important to remember it’s everyone’s responsibility to carry on the legacy of those who came before them.
“We have a contribution to make since we get to be here now 100 years into this,” she said. “We get to set the path of what the next 100 years will be. That’s important.”
She talked about the history of the school’s surroundings and stories of the generations before that have not been documented or shared. As a teacher at the school, she’s working to make sure those stories are heard.
Fred Walker, a 1960 alumnus, also talked about some of his fondest memories of the school — including teachers who built them up because they knew the students “came from humble backgrounds,” playing on the basketball team and pep rallies, and getting to carry his crush’s books to school when they walked to campus.
“I mean it from my heart and I speak on part of all of my alumni, this school is in good hands,” he said.
Lily Weiss, executive director for the Dallas Arts District, previously served as the Artistic Director for the school.
“Nothing makes me prouder than seeing our former students making headway and making noise,” Weiss said, later adding that “the 100 years of students who graduated from this school are today’s visionary leaders in every field that you could imagine.”
Dallas City Council member Paul Ridley talked about the school advancing the arts in the city while setting an example for programs across the nation.
“I’m sure all the alumni here know how special this school is in telling the history of Dallas,” he said. “You cannot tell the story of Dallas and the Arts District without it.”
Ridley read a proclamation on behalf of the mayor recognizing the 100th anniversary of Booker T. Washington.
A representative for Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, also presented the school with a Congressional Record of Statement recognizing the milestone.
Later in the event, the school unveiled an authentic photograph of Booker T. Washington that will be hung alongside the busts of Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver as a reminder of his legacy. Booker T. Washington was born into slavery before becoming a nationally known leader in the African American community during the post-Reconstruction era and Jim Crow. Among his many accomplishments, Washington founded the National Negro Business League and was the first teacher at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.
Looking to the future, Badu and current student council President Kennedy Eagleton buried a time capsule beneath the school’s large Pegasus statute.
The silver cylindrical capsule holds letters from staff and students, news articles, school spirit swag and other artifacts from the last century. It’s scheduled to be opened in 2122 during the bicentennial celebration.
Before the women lowered the capsule into the ground, everyone chanted: “We are Booker T.”