Remembering: An Ongoing Act of Resistance

Sumner High School

In October of 2021, the St. Louis Public School Board agreed to keep Sumner High open four years past its anticipated closing date. Faced with an all-time low enrollment of 200, the county made clear that Sumner’s long-term operations were dependent on the school’s ability to increase enrollment to above 400 pupils. As was often the case in Summit’s experience with the Prince William County School District, the St. Louis Board left the responsibility of increasing enrollment entirely up to Sumner.

Image Source: H.W. Sexton and Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

When the St. Louis Public Schools district put forth a plan to close 11 schools in December of 2020, community members rushed to intervene. Every school included in the superintendent's proposal served populations that were majority Black, and more than half of the schools were in predominantly African American neighborhoods. One school, Charles H. Sumner High, had been in operation since 1875, making it the oldest Black high school west of the Mississippi River. Although numerous civic organizations and Sumner alumni were able to convince the board to keep the school open through 2024, Sumner's long-term fate is by no means assured.[1]

Since 2000, more than 25,000 public schools have been closed in the United States; of these closed school populations, African American students represent a disproportionate amount, in some cases up to 61%.[2] These instances of educational injustice do not exist in isolation, as has been made clear by the histories of institutions like Summit School. It is only through historical analysis and contextualization of contemporary shutdowns that the "ongoing and systemically racist structure that has resulted in the destabilization of Black communities" can be fully exposed.[3] Additionally, histories of Black education like the one at the center of this digital project can be used to empower individuals as they work to recognize and challenge "patterned attacks on their schools and communities."[4]

Iron Hill School #112C

Image Source: Delaware Public Archives Flickr

The work of remembering and writing these histories is likely to face significant resistance. In February of 2023, the Iron Hill Science Center in Newark, Delaware debuted its new "African American History Trail." Situated just a few feet away from Iron Hill School #112C (a designated historic site), signage on the trail interpreted the history of the area's free Black community.[5] Two weeks later, a Center volunteer made a disheartening discovery: multiple posts and exhibit labels installed as part of the trail had been vandalized or stolen.[6] This deliberate attempt at erasure of African American history serves to underscore the importance of ongoing research regarding Black schools and communities. Projects like the one at Iron Hill and the digital exhibits on this site are an essential aspect of ongoing resistance against the intentional forgetting of Black history.


Finally, historical research on the topic of Black education allows for a more effective recovery of information regarding "lost" African American communities. When housing developers approached individuals living in Joyce Russell's neighborhood in the 1980s, many families accepted the money offered to them and "moved to upscale communities in other areas of Virginia," while others were "never heard from again."[7] This dispersal of community members makes it difficult for historians to reconstruct the places that Black lives once inhabited. Records pertaining to education, however, provide valuable information on aspects of daily living like employment, changes in population, and quality of life. Archives containing these types of documents are often maintained for extended periods of time by public school districts, and are accessible to researchers via the Freedom of Information Act.

Regarding this online project, documents preserved by the Prince William County Public Schools district will help to inform continued investigations into the history of Black education in the Occoquan region. Further avenues of research might examine the five-year period between initial integration and the county's decision to assign students to schools based on the location of their homes.[8] Additionally, several questions remain regarding a number of events explored in this exhibit: What were the details surrounding Summit’s transfer from the Black community to the school district? How did the county and the Occoquan community perceive Summit in the years leading up to its closure? Did African Americans advocate for the school's shutdown as part of a renewed push for consolidation and access to additional resources? While the answers to these inquiries are currently unknown, it is clear that the history of Black education in the Occoquan area is one of self-determination, resistance, and above all – community.

By Stephanie Martinez


[1] Jerome E. Morris, Benjamin D. Parker, and Luimil M. Negrón, “Black School Closings Aren’t New: Historically Contextualizing Contemporary School Closings and Black Community Resistance,” Educational Researcher 51, no. 9 (2022): pp. 575-583,, 579-580.

[2] Morris, Parker, and Negrón, 575.

[3] Morris, Parker, and Negrón, 575.

[4] Morris, Parker, and Negrón, 576.

[5] “African American History Trail,” Iron Hill Science Center, 2023,

[6] Johnny Perez-Gonzalez, “Vandals Strike Delaware Black History Trail Just Two Weeks after Its Debut,” WHYY, March 14, 2023,

[7] Joyce Russell Terrell, A Blues Song of My Own (Signal Mountain, TN: CASI Publishing, 2009), 188.

[8] Lucy Walsh Phinney, Yesterday's Schools: Public Elementary Education in Prince William County, Virginia, 1869-1969: A Social and Educational History of a Rural County in Virginia (Richmond, VA: R. E. F. Typesetting & Publishing, Incorporated, 1993), 42.

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