Neto's Tucson by Ernesto Portillo Jr. : Dunbar restoration project shines a spotlight on school's legacy

Neto's Tucson by Ernesto Portillo Jr.
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.01.2008
During the days of segregation in Tucson, Barbara Lewis found serenity in the blacks-only Dunbar School.

Lewis said it is a testament to the teachers, the principal and the staff who shielded students from the apartheid outside Dunbar's walls.

"I felt special," said Lewis, whose last name was Hollins when she attended Dunbar from the first through ninth grades. Dunbar gave her and other students the feeling of security amid Tucson's official and unofficial Jim Crow policies.
Desegregation came to Dunbar in 1951, and the school was renamed John Spring Junior High School.

Although Dunbar is a reminder of Tucson's segregationist past, Lewis and other Tucsonans believe Dunbar can serve a positive purpose.

They are working to transform Dunbar School into a Tucson black-history museum and community cultural center. "Where can you go and find history like this," said Shirley Hockett, who attended Dunbar during her first three years of school. "There is no place in Tucson."

Since 2001, the Dunbar Coalition, a non-profit group that owns the school, has been remodeling the two-story, 51,000-square-foot building at the corner of West Second Street and North Main Avenue, north of Downtown.

Phase one, which is the cultural center of the project, is nearing completion.

This afternoon at 4 p.m., the Dunbar Coalition will kick off phase two of the project, which will include remodeling the original east-side portion of the building, which was built in 1918. The older section will house the museum.

Although the school was shuttered in 1978, it remains in use.

The coalition rents the auditorium for weddings and quinceañeras. Community groups hold meetings in the school.

When the project is completed, Dunbar will house a dance studio, a barber academy, a professional food service- and catering-education program, and a charter school linked to the Tucson Urban League.

The 2004 Pima County bond election allocated $1.22 million for the project, said Cressworth Lander, chairman of the coalition.

Dunbar could receive another $1.5 million if a second county bond election is approved by voters, but no election has been set, said Lander, who attended Dunbar from 1931 to 1940.

"We're doing what we have to do," he said as he guided visitors through Dunbar's remodeled section.

He showed off the new $15,000 dance floor in the freshly painted dance room, the fully equipped kitchen and soon-to-be barber classroom.

"We're still working on a few things," he said.

Lewis, who still lives in the "A" Mountain area where she grew up, said she believes it's more than nostalgia that connects her to Dunbar.

A resurrected Dunbar will teach Tucson about its racial past, Lewis and Hockett said.

It will also reflect the unsung contributions of blacks who helped build Tucson, including Lewis' parents, who owned a beauty parlor and a cafe on the old Downtown Plaza de la Mesilla.

"That was my playground," she said.

But it wasn't always fun and games for Lewis, her family and friends. Local businesses and schools didn't serve blacks.

Dunbar was the sanctuary for Tucson's black students.

The school's later years were led by heralded principal Morgan Maxwell Sr., who refused to allow Tucson to treat the school and its students as second-class citizens.

Dunbar's legacy is intertwined with Tucson's history. Whether Tucsonans attended the school or not, Dunbar is a special place to revisit.

Said Hockett: "If you were born and raised here, this facility is a place to come back to."

● Reporter Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. has deep roots here. His maternal grandparents came to Tucson in 1931. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Argentine-born Onofre Navarro, lived in Tucson beginning in the 1860s. Portillo can be contacted at 573-4242 or