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Genealogy Gems at the Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives – Part II

This is Part 2 of a 5 part series on using the collection at the Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives in Washington, DC to perform genealogy research. This post discusses the history of the school and how it came to be a museum and archives. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are Courtesy Sumner Museum.

History of the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives

The Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives is housed in the historic Sumner School.  When the school was built in 1872 it was the first newly constructed school for Negro children in the city. It was designed by the architect Adolf Cluss.  Cluss was born in Germany and immigrated to America as a young adult.   He was highly respected in Washington DC and well-known for his schools and other public buildings.

Adolf Cluss [Public Domain] (left)  and Charles Sumner (right)

The school was named for Charles Sumner, a US Senator from Massachusetts, who was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery and equal rights.  During segregation, the building also housed offices for the Superintendent for the Colored Public Schools and the Board of Trustees for the Colored Public Schools.

From 1872 through 1877 the building also housed The Preparatory High School for colored students. The school was established in November of 1870 in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. In 1877, the commencement program for the first graduating class was held in the assembly hall at Sumner School.  Frederick Douglas was the guest speaker.

By the 1970’s, Sumner’s enrollment had diminished as the result of downtown commercial development. The school closed at the end of the 1972 school year. That summer the DC Board of Education agreed to let The Hawthorne School , a private secondary school , use the building rent free in exchange for maintaining the structure and admitting 41 public school students without charging tuition. The agreement was very controversial and was cancelled in 1978.

After 1978, the building remained vacate and fell into disrepair.  Mayor Marion Barry placed the building on a list of properties to be sold. When the roof collapsed in 1979, the Department of General Services notified the school board that the building was unsafe and should be razed within 24 hours. The School Board went to court and received a restraining order to prevent demolition of the building until a structural engineer could be hired to evaluate the situation.

Many school board members felt the building should be preserved.  Richard L. Hurlbut, a School Board employee and historian, along with others led an effort to preserve and renovate the school. One story that is often told is of how Hurlbut threaten to stand on the roof to prevent the school from being demolished.  The school was placed on a historic register.  A $5 million renovation was undertaken from 1982 to 1986.  In 1986 the building was charted as the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives. Richard L Hulburt was the director and curator.

Nancye Suggs  joined the Sumner Museum as the building administrator in 1987. She  replaced Hulburt when he retired.    She is credited with expanding the reading room and the  collection, as well as,  advocating for the archive’s importance.

Nancy Suggs Courtesy Darrow Montgomery

Nancye Suggs ~ Copyright Darrow Montgomery/Washington City Paper

Suggs retired in 2008 and was replaced by Kimberly Springle.  Springle has implemented many events and exhibits to allow the community to engage with the Sumner collection.

kspringleheadshot3 - Copy

Kimberly Springle, Executive Director

The Hurlbut-Walker Memorial Research Forum highlights the work developed by public researchers who have accessed the Sumner collection.

Hurlbut-Walker Memorial Research Forum

The objectives of the forum are to:

  • Honor the Life, Memory, and Contributions of Richard L. Hurlbut and James D. Walker
  • Introduce and Engage the public with the Sumner Museum Archival Collection
  • Promote the work and valued research of individuals who have used the Sumner Archives as one of their major resources for a finished work; i.e. book, dissertation, film, community project
  • Facilitate lively discussion about the culture, history, and legacy of DC Public Education.

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DCPS Pride Open House celebrates the history and pride of the DC Public School System.  This event occurs one Saturday a month and highlights some aspect of the DCPS. All Museum exhibits are open for self-guided tours as well.

DCPS Pride

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Group tours and interactive workshops are available for those interested in learning more about the museum and the DC Public School System. Lunchtime speakers allow researchers to share their projects.

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The Friends of Sumner School Museum and Archives, a 501(c) (3) Organization, was launched in 2017 to support the mission and initiatives of the Sumner Museum.

In this video Dr. Sandra Jowers-Barber, Director for the Humanities at the University of the District of Columbia Community College interviews Kimberly Springle, Executive Director of the Sumner Museum.  It provides an excellent summary of the history of the Sumner Museum and its collection.

Dr. Sandra Jowers-Barber (left) and  Kimberly Springle (right)


Genealogy Gems at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives – Related Post

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