Site Visit: Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives

Washington, DC native Marvin Gaye attended Randall Junior High School & Carodozo High School. Photo used with permission, Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives

Written by: Geronimo Collins

The Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives is the official museum and archives dedicated to preserving the history of Public Education in Washington, DC. In a town full of museums, it’s also one of the most unknown. I met with the museum’s executive director, Kimberly Springle, for a tour and in-depth conversation about the museum’s mission.

The museum is located inside the same building that housed the original Charles Sumner School, which was one of the first public elementary schools for African-American children and also possibly an architectural first since there were few school buildings of similar design. The school opened in 1872 and held the first commencement for African American public high school students in 1877, with Frederick Douglass as the keynote speaker. Having recently celebrated 30 years, the museum holds archives and memorabilia dating back to 1804 which includes DC Public School (DCPS) Board of Education’s meeting minutes. Visitors will find everything from DCPS class pictures, yearbooks, newspaper clippings, trophies, budget reports, and staff/student registrars roughly between 1850 and World War II years.

DC Public School students participate in a track meet at the DC Armory. Photo used with permission, Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives
Armstrong High School JROTC

One of the most impressive facts I learned about the museum is how much of an anomaly it is, possibly being the most comprehensive U.S. collection of one school district’s history. However, it was also surprising to learn how few people knew of the museum, especially former DCPS students. Kimberly and I discussed ways to get the current DCPS system involved with the museum and how to spread the word to former students and their kin. 

Emma Merritt is recognized as having established the first kindergarten for African American children. Photo used with permission, Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives

Something the Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives has that many primary and secondary schools don’t are art galleries. Currently on view is Rhonisha D. Franklin’s Profile Noire photography exhibit. The award-winning photographer spent a year capturing images of 100 African American women to highlight their beauty, power, and regality. At first glance, the use of soft lighting and black background will make you think these images are paintings, which adds further depth to Rhonisha’s take on portraiture. If you’ll be in DC between now and January 18, 2020, I highly recommend adding the Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives and the Profile Noire exhibit to your “must-see” list.

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