As a student at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School, Betty Harris ran track and hurdles, played basketball and broke records in the broad jump, all while exploring her interest in law with trips to the District courthouses on Indiana Avenue in Northwest. She and other members of the Class of 1963 created what would become the school’s alma mater.
Memories of Harris’ Ballou experience flooded her mind as she and two other alumni received recognition Saturday, Feb. 23 as trailblazers during the All Day Alumni Scholarship Party, an action-packed gathering that attracted legions of Ballou graduates on a mission to raise scholarship funds for current Ballou students.
“Ballou gave us the best education you could get in public schools and had great teachers who cared about you,” said Harris, a retired federal government employee who lives in Fort Washington, Maryland.
As a youth, Harris, then Betty Ann McDuffie, lived on Atlantic Street in Southeast and attended Ballou when Black people accounted for one-third of the student population. After completing her studies, she worked at the FBI as a fingerprint technician and instructor. Shortly after, she transferred to the Social Security Administration, where she would work for another 30 years.
Harris’ graduation paved the way for that of her younger siblings, all of whom went on to receive master’s and doctorate degrees.
“Students were more serious about their education because they wanted to succeed in the area they lived,” Harris said. “I loved school. We were the first full class that graduated. In 1963, I ranked 24 out of 244 students, and only missed two and a half days out of the three years.”
Harris and more than 200 Ballou alumni representing classes from the ’60s through the ’90s flooded the main floor and balcony area of Decoy Lounge in Clinton, Maryland.
For much of the afternoon, the elder Knights, many of whom dressed in their blue and yellow Ballou shirts with the school name and seal emblazoned on the front, danced to the sounds of old-school go-go and R&B hits, poured spirits, and took several strolls down memory lane, never failing to boast about the feats of their respective classes.
The Knights 4 Life Scholarship Committee, comprised of five Ballou alumni, organized the event and fundraiser with the goal of raising $100,000 for a “Forever Fund” to finance the educational endeavors of up to 10 Ballou students annually.
The committee, in partnership with the Ariel Foundation International, launched an online crowdfunding platform. Qualified students who win an essay contest and have a GPA of at least 2.5 will have funds disbursed directly to their colleges.
“Our foundation started with Ballou because being a product of Southeast and Ballou, we wanted to give something back to the community,” said Ambassador Joseph Huggins, a member of Ballou’s class of 1969 and chairperson of Ariel Foundation International, a non-governmental organization that promotes entrepreneurship through educational and leadership opportunities.
Huggins noted that while the idea for “Forever Fund” originated within the Class of 1969 in its anticipation of 50th-anniversary activities, it soon became a movement that resonated across all graduating classes.
“The vision of all the various classing coming together came out of a belief that once you’re a Knight, you’re always a Knight,” he said. “The older and younger Knights are just coming together to show that we’re supporting each other.”
Ballou, named for former D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Frank Ballou, opened in 1959 to serve families in Congress Heights, Washington Highlands, and Bellevue areas of Southeast. The class of 1963, which Harris represented, counted as the first group to have spent three full academic years in the school. Members of subsequent classes recalled on-campus racial tension and periods of solidarity, particularly during the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
That legacy continues to this day as sixteen Ballou students set out to embark on a study tour of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Senegal and Spain this summer. A young student aspiring to become the first Black fetal surgeon has also been nominated to represent Ballou at the National Youth Leadership at Emory University in Atlanta.
Huggins described those young people as the caliber of student they’re seeking for the “Forever Fund.”
Guests at the Decoy Lounge said the spirit of unification and dedication to academic success carried Ballou graduates to greater heights throughout the 1970s and beyond. Sports, cultural activities and an increasing focus on burgeoning careers counted as parts of that equation.
“It’s a great feeling to see people you grew up with and still recognize them,” said Deborah Lyles, a 1972 Ballou graduate and background investigator in the Metropolitan Police Department. “When we were in school, we started our careers and remained friends. 1972 was the best year because we had the championship basketball and cheerleading teams. The girls drill team also won first place. If you live in Southeast, you have a bond.”
Anthony Alford, a 1971 Ballou graduate, said his bond with his alma mater allowed him to pick up right where he and his friends left off after several years apart. On Saturday, he and his wife, in town for the weekend, spent hours talking with other graduates over a hearty meal.
“It’s like seeing family you haven’t seen in a long time,” said Alford, a retired Army colonel who lives in Yorktown, Virginia. “Some people might be closer to you than your brothers and sisters. We have times that we regret but we matured and look back on where we came from, thankful the Lord was with us.
“When I was in the army, I didn’t have a chance to come to these events,” he said. “Now that I’m back, I won’t miss a thing.”