William N. Buckner, Jr.

William Naylor Buckner, Jr. mentored generations of students in Washington, DC. He served as a teacher, counselor, and principal in his forty-one year career with the Washington, DC public schools. A strong advocate for the trades, Buckner continuously sought equitable employment for students, including through apprenticeships and jobs within trade unions. He was also an artist who earned acclaim in a variety of media. He held leadership roles in art and education organizations at local and national levels.  

Photo of a man from the shoulders up

William N. Buckner, Jr. sits for a portrait with the "School Club," c. 1957. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Born in Cumberland, Maryland on October 30, 1888, Buckner moved with his parents, William N. Buckner, Sr. and Sarah P. Buckner, to Washington, DC at a young age. He attended public schools for African Americans in the city's segregated system, which had an innovative curriculum that offered art instruction at every grade level, from kindergarten through the post-secondary Miner Normal School.

The interdisciplinary curriculum was created and constantly refined by Director of Drawing Thomas W. Hunster, who taught Buckner at the renowned M Street School and became a mentor and friend. At M Street (renamed Dunbar in 1916), Buckner learned to combine his passion for art with expertise in carpentry and engineering. The Anacostia Community Museum's collection includes two paintings and five marionettes that Buckner made during his tenure at M Street (1904-1907) and Miner (1907-1909), respectively. 

Colorful painting of a parrot on a perch

Parrot, William N. Buckner, Jr., 1909. Oil paint and oil pastel on paper. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

After graduating from Miner, Buckner began teaching woodworking at Lincoln Elementary (1910). His pupils learned by doing, as Hunster modeled. When Buckner taught at the O Street Vocational High School, for example, his carpentry class installed a floor in a Washington, DC public school, a first. According to The Evening Star, the city furnished the materials. Students drove wooden pegs into 150 holes that they drilled "through four inches of solid cement." Then, they laid one-by-four boards called "sleepers" to provide a secure foundation for tongue-and-grove Georgia pine flooring. "Problems pertaining to the flooring were worked out in academic classes as the job progressed," noted the article, published on June 18, 1915.

Painting of autumn leaves on an oak branch

Leaves, William N. Buckner, Jr., 1909. Oil stick on paper. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

After Army service during World War I, Buckner taught at Howard University while completing his undergraduate degree (1917-1924). He returned to the DC public school system to teach at Armstrong Technical High School, where he eventually served as a counselor and later, principal. His quest for knowledge never ceased. In the 1930s, he earned a master's degree in education from Columbia University. He held two principalships, first at Phelps Vocational High School (1944-1952) and then at Armstrong until his retirement (1952-1957). 

In addition to painting and puppetry prowess, Buckner was an accomplished silversmith and an avid photographer who captured historical moments such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, President John F. Kennedy's funeral procession, and riots following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in 1968. 

In retirement, Buckner continued to advocate for employment opportunities for Washington, DC youth, and his counsel remained in demand. He was tapped to mediate tension escalated by Dr. King's assassination and served on the search committee for a new superintendent for DC public schools in 1970. In addition to making toys for his grandchildren, he continued to create art in a variety of media until his passing on July 30, 1984 in Hyattsville, Maryland. 


Howard University, 1919-20: Catalog of the Officers and Students of Howard University. Howard University Catalogs. 46. https://dh.howard.edu/hucatalogs/46

Howard University, Howard Academy Year Book: 1918. Howard University Yearbooks. 99. https://dh.howard.edu/bison_yearbooks/99

Rosenfeld, Megan. "At the Smithsonian, Kermit Moves In," The Washington Post, 9 June 1980, B1, B3.

"Students Lay Floor in School Building," The Evening Star, 18 June 1915, p. 15.

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