As “whole child” developmental education was sweeping the globe in the early 1900s, Dorothy Howard knew it was exactly what young children needed. She had studied early childhood education at Columbia University and the University of Chicago before becoming a teacher in the District of Columbia school system.
The District had just chartered its first “nursery school,” but as Howard’s own daughter turned 2, Howard knew she would not be welcome at the school – nor would any of the District’s other Black children.
So in 1929, Dorothy Howard founded the Garden of Children, the first nursery school in the District – and one of the earliest in the country – for Black children. The school was housed in Howard’s home, and the first class included her daughter.
At the Garden of Children, Howard pioneered what she called an “early start” approach that emphasized education, emotional warmth, and teacher qualifications and compensation. The program quickly became popular with other Black professionals who saw the power of high-quality early education.
The school grew and soon had four full-time teachers and a consistent enrollment of more than 40 students. And it endured as an institution in the District’s Black community for 32 years, until Howard retired in 1961.
She died in 1988, but not before being honored on her 90th birthday by hundreds of former students who gathered at Howard University to celebrate her – and her impact on their lives.
In 2016, the National Museum of American History posted a photo from the school to social media and was contacted by a woman named Eunice (she didn’t want to share her last name) who had attended the Garden of Children in the 1940s.
Washington, D.C. segregation was “harsh and in place,” she told the museum. “I couldn’t go downtown and try on clothes. You couldn’t go to the restroom unless you went to the public restrooms in the Carnegie Library.”
But she says the Garden of Children was more than simply a place that Black families could access early education. It was a place they could access excellent early education. “It was something we all knew,” Eunice recalled. “That we were as good or better than anybody else.”
And perhaps most meaningful to Eunice was the long-term impact of the early start Dorothy Howard gave so many young Black children.
“Most of the people that were in that school became professionals in the real sense of the word. We were prepared academically, and you felt like you could do anything anybody put in front of you. That carries over even now.”