“Shameful Shaw” and Narratives of Black Pathology

This keynote lecture was offered as the culmination of the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians biennial symposium, “Race, Ethnicity, and Architecture in the Nation’s Capital.”

This research came from Wiley’s current book project, a history of Black Washingtonian’s ambition for education as a means towards racial uplift and the repercussions therein. During the height of the Jim Crow era, White reactionaries in the city used urban planning as a tool for racialized spatial elimination, dislocating Black residents and shuttering Black schools, causing increased overcrowding in near Howard University in Northwest. A 1950s Washington Post crime reporter argued the schools in the Second Police Precinct faced competition from the neighborhood alleys which were “classrooms for trouble.” Black youth in the historic mid-city neighborhood were continuously pathologized in print, on television, and in academic reports.

Wiley argued that despite major gains in federal Civil Rights legislation, Washington public schools continued to flounder throughout the 1960s, in large part due to the absence of Home Rule. Black parents in the city fought against a discriminatory ability tracking system implemented by Superintendent Carl Hansen shortly after integration. Federal education policymakers put their hopes first in New Frontier juvenile delinquency programs, then in Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, to lend aid to the crippled school system. Wiley contended that the bankrupt school system, which relied on Congress for budgetary appropriations, was the recipient of federal grants because Black youth were criminalized, not because of the decrepit condition of the schools. The problem of Black schools in Washington, according to policymakers, was the problem of Black pathology, not white racism. Thus, federal dollars were spent on compensatory programs rather than bricks and mortar projects, until the 1965 uprising in Watts forced a change in the administration of urban policy projects. Shaw Junior High School (known by then as “Shameful Shaw”), was a symbol of both bureaucratic disfunction in the city and the supposed “cultural depravity” of Black youth. In an effort to avoid urban unrest in Washington, Shaw and the neighborhood around it would become the basis of a Model Cities urban renewal project promoted by local clergy and activist Walter Fauntroy.