In 43 states and the District of Columbia, Black students are more likely to get arrested at school, an analysis by Education Week Research Center found last year. Another study finds that Black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than White students. And most recently, NPR reported that administrators at Ballou High School, a predominately Black school in Washington, D.C., were pressured to pass a senior class where the majority of students missed more than six weeks of school.
But in the 1800s, Dunbar High School, the first public high school for Black students in the U.S., was so renowned for its academic excellence that Black parents moved to Washington so their children could attend it. Dunbar was also home to Kenneth R. Clayton, the first African-American, and probably the youngest at 24, U.S. Amateur Chess Champion. Clayton died in December at the age of 79.
“He’s an individual who was given a chess set as a graduation present from high school at Dunbar. And within a year…had mastered the game to the point that he was member of the Harvard chess club,” Robert L. Clayton, Kenneth’s brother, told the AFRO.
Clayton received his first chess set in 1955. By 1963, he was the U.S. Amateur Chess Champion.
“Not only was he salutatorian of the class, Kenneth did not have to apply to an Ivy League college,” R. Clayton said. “He received a telegram from the Ivy group indicating that he was admitted to the Ivy league school of his choice.”
Clayton said his brother had a perfect SAT score and never saw a grade below A in high school.
As an African American, R. Clayton said that his brother didn’t see any limitations to what he wanted to accomplish.
“The driving influence of Kenneth was never to recognize that there was an obstacle to any level of his achievement based on him being African American,” R. Clayton added. “There never was a discussion about whether or not African Americans could achieve on standardized exams.”
Clayton attended Harvard and studied Chemistry but went into the computer science field in 1963. And that was an unusual education track for African Americans at the time because they were encouraged to study law, medicine or teaching, according to R. Clayton.
“Kenneth was pursuing excellence in areas in which African Americans weren’t encouraged to be excellent and still achieving significantly in those areas… there may have been encouragement to be a professional baseball player… but there certainly wasn’t encouragement, even within the African American community, to achieve in the game of chess.”
Clayton’s successes in the fields of computer science and chess, where there were no exemplars of successful African Americans at the time, should be beacon for African American youth today to achieve and excel, R. Clayton said.