UPDATED: 4-23-2021


Sumner School, built on the east side of Avery Street just north of Tenth Street, was established during the Civil War and became the nation's first free school for black children below the Mason-Dixon line. Led for over forty years in the early 20th century by Principal J. Rupert Jefferson, it stood as Parkersburg's black all-grade school, from first to twelfth grade, until the Supreme Court ended school segregation in 1954. Sumner closed down in 1955. It was later reopened for children with mental disabilities. Eventually the school was demolished except for its gymnasium, which had been built in 1926. Today, thanks to the efforts of Rae Browne and others, the building is the Sumnerite African-American History Museum and Multipurpose Center. Most photos below come from the Sumner 1945-46 Sumnerium yearbook owned by Gloria Powell Stanford.

Sumner in 1955, shortly after closing down in late
1954 and being converted to the Sunshine School.





The final senior class (1955) of Sumner High School had seven members: Virginia Lee Hatcher, Harold Seymour, William Dewey Seymour, Floyd Ray Smith, Joseph Louis Jones, Creda Ann Bartlett Jr., and Lois Jean Jones. Harold Seymour and Creda Ann Bartlett are deceased, but at last report the other five are still alive. Lois Jean Jones Daniels and Louis Jones are still in Parkersburg, Floyd Smith is in Georgia, Virginia Lee Hatcher Seymour is in Canton, Ohio, and William Dewey Seymour is in Dayton, Ohio. They did not have a 50th reunion. Thanks to Debra Seymour Floyd, daughter of Virginia Lee and Harold Seymour, for the update.

The Sumner High School State Champions, 1919: 1-J. Martin; 2-R. Bays; 3-H. Dandridge; 4-M. Howard; 5-M. Fleming;
6-C. Carter; 7-T. Smith; 8-H. Brandon; 9-C. Martin; 10-A. Queen; 11-L. Barnett; 12-H.D. Hazlewood; 13-E. Howard;
14-E. Riggs; 15-J. Merriman; 16-L. Davis; 17-Coach C. V. Harris.
(Photo courtesy of Clifford Martin.)

The 1941 Sumner High football team practiced at the Parkersburg High School stadium.
(Photo courtesy of Kevin Bondurant and the Hicks Family)

The 1949 Sumner High Golden Knights basketball team.
(Photo courtesy of Kevin Bondurant and the Hicks Family)

Janet Hicks was Miss Sumner High of 1953 during the
Parkersburg Old-Fashion Bargain Day Parade.
(Photo courtesy of Janet Hicks Bondurant)

Hugh Johnson (left) and Cecil Amos (or Amiss) get ready to ride a 1903 Thor motorcycle around 1910. Hugh was a local
janitor who lived with his wife in the rear of 111 Thirteenth Street, while Cecil, a porter, lived at 531 Market Street.
(Photo courtesy of Roger Mackey.)

Sumner was damaged when the city's water tanks atop Quincy Hill broke in 1909, smashing trees into the rear wall.

The Sumner basketball team was called the Golden Knights.


By Michael Rice

During the Civil War, in a town called Parkersburg on the western edge of the newly declared state of West Virginia, a group of black men gathered one evening in a barbershop. As Robert Simmons, the owner, finished cutting the last man’s hair, the group discussed starting a school.

Simmons and a man named Robert Thomas led the conversation, which became somewhat contentious. All of the men in attendance agreed that their children ought to receive a formal education similar to that given to the wealthy white boys and girls across town. Their only disagreement was over how to provide proper instruction to black children when it was against the law to do so.

Some months later, seven of these men formed the Colored School Board of Parkersburg. In December 1862, the men, who came to be known as the “Sumner Seven,” would manage to open one of the earliest and longest-lived schools for black children south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The story has largely been forgotten, but the fight to establish the school deserves a place in American history. It shows the extent to which, even in slave states, black Americans worked to secure a future for their children.

When the group of would-be school founders first began meeting, several counties had already seceded from the state of Virginia in order to stay with the Union. But the state of West Virginia had not been formally recognized. With the war underway, the men understood that if the Union lost, Parkersburg might very well remain part of a slave state.

The potential threat to their freedom loomed large, making it no surprise that they feared leaks of their plan. A loose network of underground instruction had developed in some regions, but education of black Americans in the South remained largely a clandestine activity. Under an 1819 Virginia state law, anyone convicted of teaching reading or writing to “slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses” at any school could be punished with up to 20 lashes from a bullwhip. Extralegal punishments might be worse.

The Sumner Seven met in secret at the home of Robert Thomas, adopting bylaws and a constitution for a school that would be financed, opened, and operated by and for African-Americans. Despite threats from whites, they had a school up and running in less than a year.

The Colored School of Parkersburg’s first schoolmaster was Rev. S. E. Colburn. Sarah Trotter and Pocahontas Simmons served as the primary teachers. Principal Colburn was paid $25 per month for his services and was employed for four years. Initially, the school asked families to contribute $1 a month per child to help fund the expenses of the school and pay its teachers. Families who could not afford the tuition often bartered for their child’s school expenses by providing goods or services.

What the Sumner Seven proposed was a novelty in more than one way. Before this school for black youth opened in Parkersburg, no public schools existed for any area children, black or white. Starting in 1848, some wealthy white boys had begun taking private lessons from a local professor, John Nash, while wealthy white girls would soon attend the DeSales Heights Visitation Academy, beginning in 1864.

The school’s first instructors went door to door to recruit children, and classes were held at a variety of locations during the early years. The curriculum included reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and English grammar. Early enrollment records indicate that in 1865 the school had as many as 47 pupils—25 boys and 22 girls.

The Sumner Seven managed to keep instruction going until public funding became available for educating all area children. After years of reluctance among the general population to collect taxes for public education, Wood County set up a public school system for white children in 1866. The same year, the board voted to incorporate the school for African-American children into the city’s public school system, making education free for all students.

Yet it would take much longer for the school to receive the resources needed to instruct its students. Children often had to make do with secondhand materials from white schools. They would not move into a two-room schoolhouse until 1874, and finally had a custom-built schoolhouse at a permanent location in 1886. In time, the school adopted a new name—Sumner High School—in honor of Massachusetts congressman and abolitionist Charles Sumner.

The high school held its first graduation ceremony in 1877, and its last class graduated in 1955. Facing pressures to begin working, many children who attended the school could not continue their studies long enough to get a high school diploma. Nevertheless, approximately 400 children graduated from Sumner High School. This pioneering institution, the first black school in the state set up with no outside assistance, served as a blueprint for similar schools in Clarksburg, Martinsburg, and Charleston. When desegregation began in the 1950s, students were academically prepared to assimilate into the public school curriculum.

Sumner had elaborate graduations and creative programming for commencement. The school hosted celebrities, including educator Booker T. Washington, Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, historian Carter G. Woodson, and composer W.C. Handy. Sumner High School was also recognized for the number of its students who pursued higher education or became leaders in the community. Sumner alumni included dentists, physicians, lawyers, and successful entrepreneurs. In some subjects, they may have gotten a more complete education than their white peers, learning about key moments in African-American history as part of their U.S. history lessons.


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