Of the many traces we will leave over the course of our lives — in public records, in the hearts of others, in our own memory banks — perhaps none are as important and as long-lasting as those we inscribe in school. There’s a reason they call it your “permanent record.”
For people interested in the history of public education in Washington, there’s no better place to visit than the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives at 17th and M streets NW. You don’t even have to go inside to get a sense of the place. Just stand outside and admire the handsome, red-brick, tile-roofed, clock tower-equipped building. It dates from a time when public schools resembled castles, not shopping malls.
The building was designed by Adolf Cluss, the German-born architect responsible for so many of the District’s most striking edifices, including the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and the (sadly moribund) Franklin School. When it was completed in 1872, the Sumner School was the city’s first public high school for African American students. It takes its name from the Massachusetts senator whose anti-slavery zeal earned him a beating on the Senate floor from a South Carolina congressman.
A speaker at the school’s dedication proclaimed that it was “a house that none need be ashamed to enter, and from which none shall be turned away while there is room to accommodate; be he white or black, high or low, rich or poor, if they seek for education they shall be welcome.”
By the 1970s, the once-proud building was in alarming disrepair, the roof sagging and the whole thing in danger of collapse.
“The building is so rotten that a strong wind could knock the west wall into 17th Street,” a building inspector told The Post in October 1979. The city’s Department of General Services determined that the best course of action was to raze the school immediately.
And then Richard Hurlbut, a historian and District native who worked for the Board of Education, spoke up.
“He threatened to stand on the roof of the building if a wrecking ball came to tear it down,” said Kimberly Springle, executive director of the Sumner School Museum and Archives.
With the support of the Board of Education, Boston Properties renovated the Sumner School. When it was rededicated in 1986, Hurlbut oversaw the collection of historic school materials. (He died in 2001.)
Today, the Sumner School houses a large and varied collection, including Board of Education minutes, class photos, marching band uniforms, sports trophies and school yearbooks.
On a recent visit, Answer Man met Keith Irby, who was looking for vintage photographs of those unsung heroes of youth sports: the referees and umpires who oversee high school games.
Marion Woodfork Simmons was looking for information on the community that was demolished when the Third Street Tunnel was built in the 1970s. There was a school in the neighborhood named Banneker that was renamed Walker Elementary School. It later became Police Boys Club No. 2, where basketball greats John Thompson Jr. and Elgin Baylor played.
As Marion seeks to get a sense of the vanished community, she’s interested in a woman named S. Estelle Clark who lived at 1023 Third St. NW. “She was a domestic science teacher,” Marion said. “I haven’t figured out at what school.” Her search continues.
Researchers interested in academic history use the archives, but it has other uses, too. One visitor whose father was raised in an adopted family knew that his biological grandmother attended Dunbar High, but never knew what she looked like. “Sure enough, we found a yearbook photo,” Kimberly said.
Another man was doing research on local musical groups from the 1940s that blended strands of jazz, R&B and gospel. In oral interviews, the musicians mentioned the schools they’d attended. At Sumner, the man could trace their connections.
The story of public education in Washington is one of exclusion followed by inclusion. For decades schools were racially segregated, from kindergarten right up to teacher training college: Miner Teachers College for blacks, Wilson Teachers College for whites. Brown v. Board of Education — and the District’s own landmark Supreme Court case, Bolling v. Sharpe — changed that.
It’s also a story of expansion and contraction, as public school student populations have waxed and waned. When a District school closes, Kimberly tries to sweep in and procure material that belongs in the archive, saving it for future generations.
And, she said, “I spend a lot of time educating school librarians, who are often the stewards of stuff.”
The Sumner School archives are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday by appointment only. To schedule a research appointment, email email@example.com. Visitors may also tour the building, with no reservation required, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call 202-730-0478.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.