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Sumner School

Sumner School, the first school for African-American children in West Virginia, was established as a subscription school in Parkersburg in 1862. It owed its origins to a group of Parkersburg citizens who came together to find a way to educate black students. Local legend holds that barber Robert W. Simmons, a leader of the African-American community, traveled to Washington to request Abraham Lincoln’s support for the school. Its board, composed of Simmons, Charles Hicks, William Sergeant, William Smith, Matthew Thomas, Robert Thomas, and Lafayette Wilson, set a $1 per month tuition fee but made provisions to accept children who could not afford to pay.

When the new state of West Virginia assumed the responsibility for schools, the black school in Parkersburg became a part of the segregated public school system in 1866. Sumner School was named for abolitionist U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. The principal teacher during the early years was S. E. Colburn, a white minister originally from New York. The school program was eventually expanded to include high school work. Sumner became the first black high school in West Virginia, graduating its first high school class of four students in 1887.

Sumner School, grades 1–12, fulfilled important educational, social, and community roles for the black population of Parkersburg. It closed in 1955 after the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision ordered the desegregation of public schools. First housed in temporary quarters at Fifth and Avery streets, Sumner School later moved to a permanent building farther up Avery. The school building no longer survives, although the 1926 gymnasium does. There was also a Sumner School in Martinsburg.

Written by Ancella R. Bickley


  1. Wood County W. Va. in Civil War Times. Parkersburg: Trans-Allegheny Books, 1987.

  2. Browne, Rae. Sumner School. The Island Packet. (Fall 1995).