The house at 1256 Kearny Street NE is a typical Brookland home in many ways - charming and tidy, with a small front porch and a good-sized back yard. For a time in the 1920s and '30s two remarkable women lived there: Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first Dean of Women at Howard University, and her partner Mary Powell Burrill, renowned teacher of English and dramatics at Dunbar High and a playwright who influenced many students who went on to make a name for themselves in the Harlem Renaissance.
Lucy Slowe (left) is the more prominent of the pair, and rightfully so. Her accomplishments are really quite extraordinary. Here are some of them: In 1904 she won a scholarship to Howard University, where she was one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority for African American women; in 1917 she won the women’s title at the American Tennis Association’s national tournament; in 1919 she became the principal of the first junior high school for African Americans, Shaw, at 7th and Rhode Island; and in 1922 she was appointed the first Dean of Women at her alma mater, Howard University, where she became a nationally-known figure in women’s education.
Slowe and Burrill met in 1912 when Slowe was teaching English in Baltimore and Burrill was teaching the same subject at Dunbar High in Washington. When Slowe moved to DC to teach at Armstrong Manual Training Academy, she and Burrill moved in together, first at 1758 T Street NW, then at 1744 K Street NW. When Slowe was appointed Dean of Women at Howard they decided to buy a house together at 1256 Kearny Street NE in Brookland. Before they did that, Slowe won an agreement from J. Stanley Durkee, the last white president of Howard, that she wouldn’t be required to live on campus.
Unfortunately, Mordecai Johnson (right), Howard’s first black president, didn’t see things the same way. An influential pastor and a powerful preacher, Johnson had a major impact on Howard; bringing in prestigious new professors (Ralph Bunche, Charles Drew, Alain Locke, and Sterling Brown among them), raising millions of dollars and substantially elevating the visibiity of the school. But he was also a bit 'old school' in terms of gender equality, and was never comfortable with Slowe’s prominent position as Dean of Women. With Johnson’s support, the Howard trustees voted to require her to live on campus in one of the women’s dormitories that she had helped create. Slowe vehemently protested the decision, pointing out her agreement with the previous president, the fact that the Dean of Men did not have to live on campus, and the difficulty that would ensue if she was impelled to leave the house she shared with another woman. A superb organizer, Slowe dug in her heels, enlisting the aid of influential Howard alumni and black women activists around the country. She accused Johnson of trying to force her to resign and diminish her role to that of a dorm matron. Johnson eventually relented and Slowe was able to stay in her Brookland home.
That Kearny Street home became a refuge for Howard’s female students, and Slowe regularly hosted get-togethers there to talk, counsel and encourage her young charges, often meeting beneath the trees in her back yard. She also received many other guests there, mostly educators such as Mary McLeod Bethune, but also politicians and activists from around the country.
Lucy Diggs Slowe died in 1937 of kidney disease. Mary Burrill was shattered and moved out of the house to an apartment near Howard. Burrill kept Slowe’s picture on her piano, next to a vase filled with white carnations. After her retirement from teaching at Dunbar, Burrill moved to New York, where she died in 1946.
Howard University named a graduate women’s dormitory after Lucy Diggs Slowe, and DC named the school at 14th and Jackson in Brookland the Lucy Diggs Slowe Elementary School (now the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy). Also, just yesterday, Mayor Muriel Bowser named the tunnel-boring machine for the 1st Street Tunnel Project in her honor.