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A Capital Education

April 2024
1min read


Sometimes the camera solidifies a modest moment in history in a way that reminds us sharply of securities we have left behind. These photos of District of Columbia public schools, taken in 1899, render the glow of the era of McKinley in the way that the spires of Oxford whisper of the Middle Ages. They are the work of a pioneer in documentary photography, Frances Benjamin Johnston. Readers of A MERICAN H ERITAGE have seen her work before, most extensively in a Tuskegee Institute portfolio in the August, 1968, issue. Though a well-born lady, with a high-society portrait clientele and access to White House parlors from Cleveland through Taft, she was no prettifier, and shot with unblinking honesty subjects as gritty as child workers in Pennsylvania mines. Yet the serious, straightforward studies shown here have a natural charm to them. When they were taken, Washington’s school system ministered to 45,560 pupils, using 1,159 teachers—only 155 males—and expending about $1,150,000 in a year. Seventy years later the student body had almost tripled (151,000), the number of teachers was up nearly sevenfold (7,400), the budget for a year was close to 172 million dollars—and yet, for all this, the problems seemed to multiply faster than the resources. The world Miss Johnston snapped was simpler than today’s. It had its pain and injustices, true. Yet to these youngsters, a draft is a current of air, drugs are taken only on doctors’ orders, and dropping out in one’s early teens is neither risky nor discouraged; less than 9 per cent of the total District student body is in high school. In such times the social setting of education is benign. God is in Heaven, America is still beautiful, and cleanliness and virtue will pay off, even to members of “handicapped races.” The youngsters have their share of rambunctiousness and private disdain for some of their pedagogues, but as they await the surprises in a wagon trip (above) or bend in tidy rows over their desks (right), they almost surely assume unconsciously that the verities taught them are still eternal.


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