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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Harriet Tubman Elementary School: the 'jewel' of Columbia Heights

NOTE: This article highlights the history of Tubman Elementary School, one of the schools DC SCORES serves in Columbia Heights. Check out Tubman’s Poetry Slam! performance about the school’s namesake, Harriet Tubman, here.

Written by Cory Chimka,
Elementary School Program Director

“I never ran my train off the tracks, and I never lost a passenger.”

I made it a point to stop and read the quote every day upon entering the workplace, named for one of my childhood heroes, where I spent much of my young adulthood. The painted words still soar above the head of a life-sized mural of Harriet Tubman that greets you as you enter the eponymously named elementary school, often referred to as the jewel of Columbia Heights.

The school’s famous namesake led escaped slaves to freedom under the cover of night; and Harriet Tubman Elementary School rose from the literal ashes of a very dark period in the life of its neighborhood, its city, and its nation.

On the evening of Thursday, April 4, 1968 news had begun to travel northward from Memphis that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed.

Angry, distraught and devastated, the citizenry of working-class Columbia Heights spilled into the streets of their neighborhood in mourning. As residents urged local owners to shutter their businesses out of respect for the slain civil rights champion, police moved in, exacerbating the emotions radiating in all directions from the veritable pressure cooker that was the confluence of 14th and U streets, NW.

The scene turned violent, and by Sunday, April 8, 13,600 federal troops had been called in, 12 people had lost their lives, 1,097 were injured, 6,100 arrested, and 1,200 buildings had been burned. Columbia Heights was a shell of its days-ago self.

In early 1970, the relatively few residents who remained in Columbia Heights were just beginning to reconcile, rebuild and recover their neighborhood -- both physically and emotionally. On a vacant block bordered by 11th Street to the east, 13th Street to the west, Irving Street to the south, and Kenyon Street to the north, the city’s Mayor, Walter Washington, ordered ground broken for a sprawling, state-of-the-art elementary school that would honor and serve the residents who had toiled to remain in Columbia Heights; and perhaps begin to spur the development the neighborhood would desperately need to return to its days as a thriving residential & commercial “City within a City.”

Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s population continued to decline throughout the 1970s, but Harriet Tubman Elementary School welcomed all comers even as the neighborhood’s cultural hub, the opulent Tivoli Theatre, closed its doors in 1976.
The 1980s saw an influx of new residents who came not just from beyond the borders of the neighborhood, and city, but from abroad: places like Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Sierra Leon, Vietnam, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Columbia Heights became known as not only an African-American neighborhood, but one where immigrants were welcome to make their home in the United States, and all their children attended “Tubman.”

In the ’90s, the city government got serious about the commercial redevelopment of Columbia Heights and construction began on a subway station just a block from Tubman on METRO’s green and yellow lines. Retail businesses gradually began to spring up around the METRO construction, and Tubman’s enrollment shot up to near 800, over its official capacity.

It was in early 1999 that I first stumbled upon Harriet Tubman Elementary School. I was a few weeks away from graduating from the University of Maryland and had just signed a lease on my first apartment on the 1400 block of Irving Street. I wandered in and introduced myself to then-principal Peggy Wines, explaining that I’d signed an open contract with DC Public Schools and was looking for a position.

She offered me a fourth grade classroom on the spot.

In my first year at Tubman, a colleague put me in contact with a five-year-old after-school program looking to expand in Columbia Heights. For the next eight years, I taught fourth grade from 8:30-3:30 and coached soccer and writing with DC SCORES after school. During that period, I met so many amazing students, families, teachers and coaches, and I made Columbia Heights my home.

I transitioned out of the classroom in 2007, eventually becoming the Elementary School Program Director for DC SCORES, and I still get to visit Harriet Tubman Elementary School every week.

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