Historian Antoinette J. Lee: White House Associations with Public Schools in the District of Columbia

After the Civil War, the nation’s capital became a magnet for foreign diplomats and people who had made fortunes in the North and West. They flocked to the city to influence policy and to seek support from and influence with the United States. Among the schools frequented by their children was the Force School, located at 1740 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, close to Dupont Circle and the hub of society and diplomatic life. Constructed in 1880, the school was named for the city’s mayor from 1836 to 1840, Peter Force. The three-story red brick building offered education for grades 1 through 8. Its students included the children of presidents, including Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt, and Charles P. Taft, son of President William Howard Taft. When Charles Taft attended the Force School, his father was Secretary of War. Quentin Roosevelt moved to the White House when he was three years old in 1901 and lived there during his father’s presidency from 1901 to 1909. Charles moved to the White House at age 11 when his father became president in 1909.

Letter from President Theodore Roosevelt about Cecelia P. Dulin, June 15, 1908.

Letter from President Theodore Roosevelt about Cecelia P. Dulin, June 15, 1908. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington D.C.

Peter Force School, constructed 1879; razed 1962.

Peter Force School, constructed 1879; razed 1962. Courtesy of The Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC

The Cecelia P. Dulin Papers at the Kiplinger Library, Historical Society of Washington, DC, include several items related to Quentin Roosevelt and Charles Taft at the Force School. Ms. Dulin (1873-1968) was a teacher and school administrator in the city’s public schools from 1893 to 1941. During the first decade of the 20th century, she taught at the Force School. In the hand-written document, “A Teacher Remembers,” Dulin wrote about the arrival of Quentin Roosevelt in her sixth grade class and her observation that he was deciding how to best rattle her and the other children in the classroom. During his tenure at the Force School, Quentin Roosevelt brought to the classroom snakes, rats, beetles, and frogs—creatures that Dulin placed in closets and window boxes where they stimulated research and discussion. The classroom also became an attraction for those who wished to “observe the President’s son in touch with the common people.” She concluded her essay with the statement, “This Boy—Quentin—had many lovable qualities which endeared him to his comrades and teacher.” The following year, both Quentin Roosevelt and Charles Taft headed to Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, where Quentin prepared for the Groton School and Charles for the Taft School.

Quentin Roosevelt died in July 1918 just short of his 21st birthday when his airplane was shot down over France during World War I. Charles Taft enjoyed a long career as a lawyer in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was Mayor of Cincinnati from 1955 to 1957; he died in 1983. The Force School building was abandoned as a school in 1939 and demolished in 1962 by Johns Hopkins University so it could use the site for its School for Advanced International Studies.

Seventy-one years would pass before a president’s child again attended a Washington, DC public school. On January 24, 1977, Amy Carter, fourth and youngest child of President Jimmy and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, was enrolled in the fourth grade at Stevens Elementary School on 21st Street between L and K Streets. Stevens had been opened in 1868 as one of Washington’s first public schools for African American children. Amy Carter’s first day at Stevens was widely reported by the media, which noted she was 12 minutes late because of rush-hour traffic and that she had the same regular school lunch of hot dogs and beans as her classmates. During her time at Stevens Amy became active in D.C. Recreation Department after-school programs, and her father attended the school’s assembly in June 1977, sitting with other parents on folding chairs while watching Amy and her classmates perform in a ballet called “Doll on a Music Box.” In September 1978 Amy began attending Hardy Middle School on Foxhall Road NW.

Amy Carter graduated from the Memphis College of Art in 1991 and earned a 1996 master’s degree in art history from Tulane University. She illustrated her father’s 1996 children’s book “The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer.” Today she serves on the board of the Carter Center, a non-profit public policy center founded by her parents to fight disease, hunger, poverty, conflict, and oppression around the world.

Accounts like the ones described above testify to the role of Washington, DC’s public schools and other institutions of learning in the city’s local history as well as their importance to some of the families who occupied the White House. It is likely that completion of this research effort and its dissemination will enhance our understanding of the multi-faceted history of the nation’s capital city.

Antoinette J. Lee is an independent historian from Arlington, Virginia.

Three presidential children who attended D.C. public schools: (left to right) Quentin Roosevelt, Charlie Taft and Amy Carter.

Three presidential children who attended D.C. public schools: (left to right) Quentin Roosevelt, Charlie Taft and Amy Carter. Library of Congress; Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum