VINCENT, Ohio — A little-known aspect of local history was the focus of a presentation offered Wednesday morning to Warren High School students to illuminate Black History Month and bring it closer to home.
Michael Rice, assistant director of admissions and student affairs at Ohio University, is an educator, author and speaker. His subject as he addressed about 100 students in the Warren auditorium was the remarkable history of Sumner School, established as an all-black school in Parkersburg, West Virginia, during the Civil War.
Black History Month, he said, originated with the efforts of Carter Woodson, a historian, educator and journalist who in 1926 was instrumental in establishing Negro History Week during February.
“He promoted the belief that all races are equal,” Rice said. “He said God could not be just by making one race inferior to another.”
Black History Month was established as a national awareness month during the Gerald Ford presidency, Rice said. Moving on to the subject of Sumner School, he asked the students to examine their own expectations.
“Think about your pending graduation,” he said. “You expect a ceremony, receiving your diploma from Mr. (Ben) Cunningham (principal of Warren High School) as you walk across the floor, everyone will applaud, your parents will be bursting with pride. Now think what it would have been like for a black teen in 1887, from a high school that had existed only a few years, and unclear on expectations for the future.
“Some people were there to see a spectacle, some to root against them. What were their hopes and dreams?”
Rice spoke about “the Sumner seven,” the group of black businessmen who founded the school. It started before the end of the Civil War, while the state was still part of Virginia.
“There was some fear because this was still a slave culture, in which they risked being fined, being jailed or being lashed in public,” he said.
Sumner inspired the founding of other similar schools, and the example of its students and graduates inspired others to achieve, he said.
Life without the knowledge of history, he said, citing black leader Marcus Garvey, is like a tree without roots, and he said it is an incomplete study unless “it is honest and includes lessons about all the people who made this country, the impact that all Americans have made.”
Rice’s connection to Warren is more than tenuous. He was invited to speak by a Warren senior he met during a gathering at Ohio University. Peyton Bowe, 18, was at a Scholars Day session and had developed an interest in Sumner School after hearing about Rice’s project to write a series of books about it. She is now working on Sumner School as a capstone project for her senior year.
“I knew I wanted to do a project about diversity,” she said. “When I look at our school, it’s not very diverse at all . and this seemed like a good cause, something that’s very overlooked.”
Bowe, whose career plan is to become a medical doctor, said she hopes to raise awareness about efforts to repair and preserve the school as a part of local history and a monument to determination.
“I hope we can take a field trip there, see the state it’s in, and raise awareness,” she said. “I want to help in efforts to clean it up. I want to work hands-on on this project.”
Rice, who noted he is not affiliated with the Sumnerite board, the group dedicated to preserving the school and making it a museum, said the only remaining building in Parkersburg has been repeatedly vandalized, with copper wire and pipe ripped out and stolen and artifacts and fixtures looted. The school held a clean-up day last year that helped spruce up the lot on Avery Street, but much remains to be done, he said.
When asked how the students who heard him Wednesday could apply what he told them, Rice said they should take heart from the example.
“I think they should think about courage in stepping outside their bounds, the courage to go to college, for example,” he said. “We take it for granted, but not everyone has the comfort level of stepping outside their community, of persevering to greater heights. Maybe people are telling them to go to vocational school, saying ‘College isn’t for you.’ What they can take from those students and the Sumner Seven is to persevere against the odds.”
A Glance at Sumner School
—First all-black school south of the Mason-Dixon Line and first free public school in Parkersburg
—Established by seven businessmen in Parkersburg in 1862
—Named for: U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a passionate abolitionist of the time
—Joined public school system as a segregated school in 1866, after formation of West Virginia as a state
—First graduating class: 1887
—Closed: 1955, after U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ordered integration of schools
—Location: 1016 Avery St., Parkersburg, now location for the Sumnerite Museum