Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas turns 100, including 45 as an arts magnet


March 2022 marks a significant milestone for Booker T. Washington High School as it celebrates its 100th anniversary and its special place in American history.

During the Jim Crow era, Booker T flourished as a haven for black students, who were told they were simply not welcome in segregated schools in white Dallas. (Notable alumni from that era include Hall of Fame baseball great Ernie Banks, now memorialized in a statue on a campus.)

Forty-five years ago, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Booker T took on a new identity, as the Dallas Independent School District art magnet known as Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. — one of the first centers of attraction for the arts in the country.

And one of the best.

Its list of creative alumni is nothing short of astonishing.

Booker T produced Grammy-winning singers Erykah Badu, Edie Brickell, and Norah Jones; actor Miguel Cervantes, who played the title role in hamilton, in a touring and Broadway production; actress Elizabeth Mitchell, a regular on the hit TV series Lost; and actress Erica Tazel, whose credits include Justified and Roots.

Erykah Badu speaks to music and dance students at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas in 2004.
(MEI-CHUNJAU/62037)

And the writers!

Gifted playwright Jonathan Norton grew up in Pleasant Grove, where during his ninth grade his father drove him every morning to Samuell High School to catch the bus to Booker T, where he originally dreamed of being an actor. He graduated from Booker T four years later and in 2019 he had written penny candystaged in a superb production at the Dallas Theater Center.

In 2018, Booker T graduate David Yaffe released what some critics called the definitive biography of a difficult subject, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.

At the time, Yaffe spoke enthusiastically about his years at Booker T, especially English teacher Scott Davison, whom he credits as a mentor you will remember forever.

Like Yaffe once said The Dallas Morning Newshe remembers walking into Davison’s classroom on the first day of school and seeing the walls lined with paintings and poetic quotes, like William Blake’s: “The unfolding of the imagination is the only true education.

The unfolding of the imagination has now touched most of the school’s graduates.

For Elizabeth Mitchell, this led to an instrumental role in Losta plum mission fueled by the confidence of a Booker T.

She once called her days at the Dallas magnet “perhaps the best experience I’ve ever had.” It’s an amazing school. There was an art wing, and the guy sitting next to me in class was the most talented painter imaginable. And then you have people playing cellos in the hallway. It was more useful than I could have ever imagined.

In this 1994 photograph, the Arts Jazz Faculty Quintet performed to a lunchtime crowd at...
In this 1994 photograph, the Arts Jazz Faculty Quintet performs to a lunchtime crowd in the music room at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The pianist at the bottom of the image is Kent Ellingson. (Dallas Morning News Archive)

For Kristy Krüger, her own Booker T run inspired a love of classical and jazz piano and musical tastes that travel so easily from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

And for some, Booker T validated the truism that “education is for making a living, not making a living.”

In humbler times, Broadway star Cedric Neal was found sleeping in Booker T’s basement, stashing a change of clothes in his locker for the nights he couldn’t face the return to the House.

Neal, Class of 1992, credits the teachers and students at Booker T with doing nothing less than transforming his life.

“It was the first place where I knew that just because I loved to sing, I wasn’t a weirdo,” he once said. “It was not just the teachers, but the student body that made me feel like no one wanted to question me or judge me. I went to school one day with half my face painted in drag, and no one said anything.

Booker T. Washington alumni Michael Garcia, 19 (top left), Zane Unger, 18 (top center),...
Booker T. Washington alumni Michael Garcia, 19 (top left), Zane Unger, 18 (top center), Todd Baker, 19 (top right), Kade Cummings, 19 (in bottom left) and 19-year-old Ricardo Hartley (bottom right) pose for a portrait after freshman ballet class in 2017 at the Julliard School in New York. (Cassandra Giraldo / Cassandra Giraldo / Special Control)

Neal is by no means the only Booker Tal alum to grace a Broadway stage, nor are the examples relics of another era. Dallas-area theater veteran Booker T graduate Brian Gonzales will soon appear alongside comedian Billy Crystal in a Broadway musical version of Crystal’s 1992 film, Mr Saturday night.

Which in 2022 is delicious proof of the deployment of the imagination.

Details of upcoming centennial events can be found on Booker T.’s website at https://www.dallasisd.org/bookert.

Playwright Jonathan Norton visits Rufus C. Burleson Elementary School, where he attended...
Dallas-born David Yaffe, author of new book on Joni Mitchell.
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