Alumni of the oldest high school for African Americans west of the Mississippi River are again fighting for the school’s survival, extolling its symbolism and importance, and fueled by a deep pride in its history.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a few dozen alumni gathered at the base of the steps to Sumner High School, on St. Louis’ north side, clad in the school’s maroon and white. Many had their class year bedazzled on sweatshirts and letterman jackets.
“It’s just a big part of my life,” says Eugenia Davis, who graduated from Sumner 50 years ago this spring, and organized the rally. “And it’s where I began to learn who I was.”
The school opened in 1875 as the first high school in St. Louis, and the Western U.S., to give diplomas to Black students. Its famous alumni include rockers such as Tina Turner and Chuck Berry, and comedian Dick Gregory. Several Tuskegee Airman, the World War II pilots, also attended the school.
“That is one of the reasons why we cannot let it be closed, simply because when you erase that history, you’re not only erasing Black St. Louis history, but you’re erasing American history,” says Pierre Blaine, a 1973 graduate.
But Sumner’s enrollment has plummeted. Urban flight has left the surrounding Ville neighborhood largely empty.
St. Louis Public Schools listed Sumner for closure over the winter along with a dozen other school buildings as part of a district-wide consolidation plan. The city school district can’t be relied on to save city neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment, says Superintendent Kelvin Adams.
“It is literally dangerous” for students to walk by vacant homes to school, he says.
Alumni, including Davis, have spent the past three months scrambling to rally resources and convince the district to save the school.
At the rally on Feb. 28, speakers climbed the steps to preach about the school’s history and the importance of it continuing to stay open in a neighborhood that’s lost nearly all of the rest of its educational infrastructure. From those steps, one only needs to glance across the football field to see three vacated and boarded up schools. Sumner is one of few remaining anchors of The Ville neighborhood — a once-thriving center of Black population and culture in St. Louis.
But while the school’s classrooms and halls were nearly bursting with more than 2,000 students during Turner and Berry’s era, today’s enrollment hovers around 200. Sumner dominated high school football in the 1970s and 1980s, winning four state championships. Homecoming games served as an annual celebration and reunion for alumni for decades.
“Sumner has changed, The Ville neighborhood has changed,” Davis says. “But it hasn’t changed in our hearts.”
Robin Witherspoon has fond memories of being a cheerleader at some of those big games when she attended Sumner from 1977-1981. She recently flipped through old class yearbooks on the dining table of her suburban home, reminiscing about friends and the outfits she wore.
But Witherspoon also was an educator and school principal herself, so she knows that without a dramatic increase in students, it doesn’t make financial sense to keep the building open.
“Schools are held open by the number of students in that building, so it’s not feasible,” she says. “You just can’t keep the electric bill paid.”
The school district almost closed Sumner a decade ago, when enrollment was around 500 students, but alumni convinced the district to keep it open. But class sizes have continued to shrink.
“As alumni, we’ve dropped the ball because we get together to have the best parties, and we get together to have the best tailgates,” Witherspoon says. “But we don’t get together to go in and support the mission. And for that, I think we’ve kind of failed the institution.”
Superintendent Adams says recommending Sumner for closure has served as a call to action.
“I think they truly understand and realize, maybe not for the first time, but realize intimately that some of the kinds of things that existed in 1960 existed because the community was a viable community,” he says about the alumni.
With backing from arts groups and a historically Black college, Harris-Stowe State University, the district would put new programs into the school to try and attract students from other parts of the city. And Sumner would have its own advisory panel.
Adams has bought into the new ideas. He will present the plan to the school board Tuesday for their vote.
If the school board decides to close the school, Davis says she’ll plan a 50-year class reunion to correspond with the last graduation, and “we would make it fabulous.”