Until 1923, the African-American children of Lufkin, Texas, attended Lucky Ward School located at 420 N. Chestnut Street. At the time, ninth grade was the established graduation level for the Lucky Ward School students. However, things changed with the construction of the Dunbar Elementary-Junior-Senior High School on Leach Street. On land donated by Malinda Garrett and her husband, Dunbar opened its doors to students in 1923 with an African-American staff consisting of principal N.C. Brandon, and teachers Malinda Garrett, Minnie B. Johnson, and Annie Pension. The school increased its graduation level to the tenth grade and eventually expanded to include grades eleven and twelve.
Having transferred over from the Lucky Ward School, Dunbar’s first students were given the honor of choosing the new school’s name. One of the first influential African American writers in American Literature and a hero in the African American community, Paul Laurence Dunbar, was chosen as the new school’s namesake. Born to former slaves, Dunbar achieved national and international prestige with the publishing of his various poems, short stories, and novels. Among those who chose Dunbar for the new school’s namesake were members of the school’s first graduating class: Hester Austin, Fannie Castle, Lottie Jackson, Mable Jackson, Freddie Johnson, and Leroy Lewis.
Dunbar Elementary-Junior-Senior High expanded beyond its location on Leach Street with the construction of a new Dunbar High School in 1951. Located at 1806 Lake Street, known today as Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Dunbar High School housed junior high and high school students. The former Dunbar campus was renamed Garrett Elementary and fed students into the new Dunbar school. Garrett Elementary was named for Malinda Garrett, one of Dunbar’s original three teachers. In 1962, the Dunbar High School campus expanded with the construction of Dunbar Junior High, located directly across the street from the high school campus. Built at the corner of Keltys Street and North Avenue, Brandon Elementary was completed to service the growing African American elementary population in 1962.
Within the realm of athletics, the Dunbar students excelled in the many sports offered by the school. Beginning with its inception in the fall of 1932, the Dunbar Tiger football team enjoyed numerous victories on the gridiron. Initially, the team traveled on flatbed trucks before moving onto Continental Trailway buses. Throughout its history, Dunbar High School made four state finals, winning championships under Head Coach Elmer G. Redd in 1964, 1966, and 1967. The Tigers found success on the basketball court by reaching the Prairie View Interscholastic League (PVIL) 3A State Tournament five times between 1952 and 1967. The Lady Tiger tennis team secured multiple individual PVIL championships while the track and field program place numerous athletes on the podium at the state meet.
Several Dunbar athletes built upon their high school achievements and continued on to successful college and professional careers. After graduating from Dunbar in 1962 and attending Prairie View A&M on a football scholarship, Ken Houston played football professionally from 1967 until his retirement in 1979. An All-Pro defensive back, Houston was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986 and named to the Sporting News 100 Greatest Players in NFL History list in 1999. Graduating in 1965, Joe Williams played running back for the Dallas Cowboys when they won their first Super Bowl title in 1972. 1967 Dunbar graduate and 1967 PVIL state 440-yard dash champion Calvin Mills became the first African-American recruited to A&M. While at A&M, Mills became an All-American and established the world record in the 440-yard dash in 1971. The 1970 A&M 880-yard world-record-setting relay team included All-American track athlete and Calvin’s brother, Marvin Mills. Both Calvin and Marvin Mills are members of the Texas A&M Athletic Hall of Fame.
With the integration of Lufkin ISD in 1971, Dunbar High School converted to Dunbar Intermediate School, which would house all 7th-grade students until the new Lufkin High School opened in 1999. With the departure of the 7th-grade students, the west campus of the Dunbar Intermediate was repurposed into Dunbar Primary, housing Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd-grade students. The east campus was repurposed as the Lufkin ISD District Education Center. Established by the Dunbar High School Alumni Association, the Dunbar Hall of Honor is also located on the east campus. Brandon Elementary closed with the desegregation of Lufkin schools.
The legacy of the Dunbar Junior-Senior High system continues today within Lufkin ISD. Lufkin High School’s athletic wing’s namesake honors Elmer G. Redd, who coached the Lufkin Dunbar Tigers championship football teams of the 1960s. Opened in 1983, Brandon Elementary celebrates William Herman Brandon, who served as Dunbar High School principal from 1924 to 1940. Garrett Primary still operates in the same buildings as the Old Dunbar High School. At the same time, Hackney Primary, the former elementary school for African American students, serves as a current primary campus. Lufkin High School’s varsity track meet, the Willie Ross Relays, is named after the Dunbar coach and longtime Lufkin ISD director of Physical Education.
Beyond the school district, Dunbar High School’s legacy is championed by the Dunbar High School Alumni Association, which operates the Dunbar Hall of Honor and is located in the home economics building of Dunbar High School. One of the few museums to honor the tradition of black segregated schools, the Hall of Honor preserves memorabilia and celebrates its honorees’ accomplishments. Many of those honorees have also been inducted into the Hall of Honor of the Prairie View Interscholastic League (PVIL), the governing body of African-American schools’ academic and athletic competition. Beyond honoring the past, the Alumni Association looks to the future by providing yearly scholarships to high school seniors whose relatives attended Dunbar High School. Alas, the segregation of public schools is now a thing of the past, but Dunbar High School’s legacy remains alive and well in Lufkin.