Sumner School, built 108 years ago exclusively for the education of the black children of Washington and Georgetown, stands vacant and crumbling at 17th and M streets NW.
Built in 1871 at a cost of $70,000 and named in honor of Massachusetts abolitionist and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, the school narrowly escaped demolition last October following reports that the building was in imminent danger of collapsing.It has been vacant since 1978.
In an effort to save the school, the buildings and grounds committee for D.C. city schools has recommended to the school board that a task force of school board members and Department of General Services (DGS) officials meet this month to discuss the future of the historic school. No date has been set for the meeting.
David Huie, director of the buildings and grounds division for city schools, said that recent engineering reports show that the building is "not in imminent danger of falling." DGS has also erected a barricade around the school and boarded up doors and windows to safeguard the school against vandals, he said.
Huie said the proposed task force meeting would determine "how far the school board will go and how far they can go," to preserve the school and redevelop the Sumner School site which also includes the currently occupied Magruder School. The schools are next to each other.
After the proposed planning meeting, the board will solicit proposals from the community on how to redevelop the area, according to Barbara Lett Simmons, chairman of the school board's buildings and grounds committee. Six unsolicited proposals have already been submitted, she said.
They include proposals from the Prudential Insurance Company and Arthur Cotton Moore, architect of the Canal Square mall in Georgetown. Both proposals suggest renovating the Sumner School for use by the board and razing the Magruder School to sell the land for commercial use.
Simmons said students at the Magruder School will eventually relocate to Grant School on G Street, between 21st and 22nd streets NW, and Grant students will move into the Fort Lincoln School in Northeast Washington.
Like many of the District's historic buildings that have faced the wrecking ball in recent years, Sumner School has an illustrious history. A history of the school was included in the board's application for landmark status, presented to the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital.
Sumner, for whom the school was named, worked for reform in prisons, creation of the public school system, and education for the physically handicapped and the mentally ill. Elected to the Senate at age 40, Sumner was perhaps the most simultaneously hated and honored senator for his opposition to slavery.
He viewed the civil war as a "just" war and used it to promote civil rights reforms. He sought to make it illegal to use Union troops to return runaway slaves, and pressed for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.He also led efforts to repeal all the fugitive slave laws, to give black soilders equal pay with whites and to create a Freedmen's Bureau.
In 1855 he delivered a vitriolic speech against a South Carolina senator who supported slavery and was nearly beaten to death at his Senate office desk by Preston Smith Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina. It was four years before he fully recovered from the assault and returned to the Senate full time. Sumner died in 1974.
The school was designed and built by internationally renowned architect Adolph Cluss. The building housed eight primary and grammar schools along with the executive offices of the Superintendent and Board of Trustees of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown, then separate municipalities. It later became the first high school for blacks in Washington. Before it was closed in 1978, it housed Hawthorne School, a private secondary school.