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The Sumner School is a popular venue for events as well as a museum with changing and permanent exhibits. It also serves as the repository of the DC Public School System's official archives. The school, honoring white Massachusetts abolitionist and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, was completed in 1872 as one of three public elementary schools (Stevens and Lincoln were the others) built for black children just after the Civil War. The school also briefly housed the Preparatory School for Colored Youth (later M Street High School and Dunbar High) from 1872 until 1877.

The school housed the offices of William Syphax, the superintendent and chair of the board of trustees for the Colored Public Schools of Washington and Georgetown. Principals of the preparatory (high school) division include Richard Greener, first black graduate of Harvard University, and Mary Jane Patterson, first black woman to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. Emma V. Brown, the city's first public school teacher, served as principal of the grammar (elementary) school division.

Sumner School was designed by German American architect Adolf Cluss, who was responsible for a large number of important public buildings constructed after the Civil War.

Senator Charles Sumner opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the return of fugitive slaves by Union troops. He also fought successfully for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the creation of a Freedmen's Bureau, the admission of testimony from African Americans in the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court, pay for black soldiers equal to that of whites, and the right of African Americans to use streetcars in the District of Columbia.

Sumner School closed in 1978 due to deterioration and was slated for demolition. An organized community effort saved the building, and its restoration was completed in 1986. The building was added to the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 1978 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

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