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A 90-year-old tradition, homecoming is source of pride for St. Louis' first black high schools

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ST. LOUIS • The way the alumni tell it, the annual homecoming football game between Sumner and Vashon high schools has no rival.

Thousands of alumni — Vashon Wolverines clad in blue, and many more Sumner Bulldogs clad in maroon — flocked to Saturday’s homecoming at Sumner, where the schools’ joint homecoming has been held each year for at least the past few years.

“People come far and wide from all over the country and, in fact, from all over the world for homecoming,” said Lou Thimes Jr., a 1977 Sumner graduate and St. Louis radio personality. “It’s not so much about the rivalry. ... It’s a gathering of the ages.”

Just about every alumni group Saturday had somebody smoking barbecued chicken and ribs and tables with trays of food set up buffet-style, holding all the necessary tailgate fare including beans, hot dogs and buns, spaghetti casserole, mac and cheese and fried chicken. All around, people were hugging old friends, sharing a meal, cheering the football teams from the bleachers or just lounging in lawn chairs in the shade.

“I’m old now, but I will keep coming forever until I can’t come anymore,” said Arlene Bragg Mathis, Sumner class of 1973.

Sumner and Vashon Homecoming

"I never miss this game. I played on the team in 1982," said Sumner High School alum Theron Snelson, who hugs classmate Cynthia Boyd on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, at the Sumner versus Vashon joint homecoming game at Sumner High School. The homecoming game between the city's two oldest African-American high schools is a precious alumni tradition that dates back 90 years. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

The homecoming game between the city’s two oldest African-American high schools is a precious alumni tradition that dates back 90 years. It is a pinnacle of pride for the two schools, which are surviving relics of what were once thriving institutions for African-Americans. It is an example of a good thing that happens in north St. Louis’ Ville neighborhood, which is heavily stigmatized and often thought of only in terms of crime, said Alderman Sam Moore of the 4th Ward, which includes Sumner.

Both schools now are in neighborhoods with more than a few vacant buildings. Both have lost thousands of students since their heyday. Both have been targeted by the district for academic failure.

Still, that hasn’t dampened the pride of many alumni who return each year for one of the oldest rivalry traditions around St. Louis.

“We’re here to preserve them and make sure that they stay in the neighborhood,” Moore, who is also a 1968 Sumner alumnus, said of the two high schools. “In this neighborhood, I have five shut-down schools. We don’t intend to let Sumner or Vashon shut down.”

A HISTORIC RIVALRY

Sumner and Vashon first became rivals because, when Vashon opened in 1927, they were the only two black high schools in the city of St. Louis, and black school sports teams weren’t allowed to play white teams.

Sumner, which opened half a century earlier in 1875, was the first high school black students could attend west of the Mississippi River. Its football team used to play college teams and travel as far as Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., just to have other black teams to play.

Rivals

The football program from the 20th Thanksgiving Day Classic game between Sumner High School and Vashon on November, 28, 1946. That annual Sumner vs rival Vashon homecoming game is this Saturday. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Starting in 1927, Vashon and Sumner held an annual football game, but it wasn’t always called homecoming — for years it was the “Turkey Day game,” held on Thanksgiving. Vashon holds bragging rights for having won the first-ever rivalry match. The game drew crowds thousands strong, and on the tradition’s anniversary in 1928, the Post-Dispatch called it “the most important football event of the season.”

At homecoming, alumni come not just to tailgate and reunite with friends they haven’t seen for years. They come to keep a tradition and a school from dying. When they think of their alma maters, they remind themselves that many of their classmates went on to change the country.

Sumner and Vashon Homecoming

"We all family here," says Kenneth Freeeman, Sumner class of 1984 (center) who dances with Rosie Macon, Sumner class of 1987, (right) on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, as the joint homecoming game between Sumner and Vashon was being played at the Sumner High School field.  Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

For Sumner, that includes rock ’n’ roll icon Chuck Berry, famed singer Tina Turner, comedian and activist Dick Gregory and tennis hall-of-famer Arthur Ashe. For Vashon: Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and world champion boxer Henry Armstrong.

“It’s important. It’s a good feeling,” Claudette Carson, 1986 graduate and president of the Vashon Alumni Association, said of homecoming. “It also reminds me of the good times.”

‘A BIG HUGE DREAM’

Vashon and Sumner alumni look at their alma maters now and see very different schools.

At Sumner’s pep rally Thursday to announce its homecoming court, Sumner students didn’t fill half the wooden seats on the ground floor of the school auditorium. Football captain Keith Clay announced his fellow teammates one by one, including those who attend another district high school, Northwest Law Academy.

Sumner and Vashon Homecoming

Sumner students barely fill half the wooden seats in the school auditorium as football captain Keith Clay announces his fellow teammates one by one during a pep rally on Thursday Oct. 12, 2017, at the Sumner High School. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

The two schools combined football teams this year because they had trouble keeping coaches. There was no Sumner homecoming parade this year, because there is no band or band teacher.

Rivals

Still wearing her sash and crown from the pep rally, Sumner High School senior Kayla Knox , 17, smiles as friends congratulate her on winning 2017 Homecoming Queen on Oct. 12, 2017, on the bus. That annual Sumner vs rival Vashon homecoming game is this Saturday. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

“A lot of the things we had no longer exist,” said Valerie Gordon, Sumner class of 1973.

On top of families’ leaving the city over several decades, the district opened magnet and choice schools to help retain students and compete with charter schools. Those schools attracted some students who might otherwise have gone to Sumner and Vashon, which are two of the district’s three remaining neighborhood high schools. The third is Roosevelt.

Last school year, Sumner had 320 students, down from a recent high of 1,252 in 2005. Vashon had 510, down from 1,524 in 2005. Today, even with segregation declared unconstitutional, the schools are essentially as segregated as they were when they opened — all but one student at Sumner last school year was black, and all but four at Vashon were.

Superintendent Kelvin Adams had plans to close Sumner in 2009, until alumni rose up to protest. On Saturday, alumni were collecting donations and selling maroon “Straight Outta Sumner” T-shirts to raise money for many things they say Sumner needs, such as books, a band and scholarships for students.

“It’s very important to me, because St. Louis has had a history of dispelling African-American culture,” 1963 Sumner graduate Jacqueline Vanderford said about homecoming. “That’s why we try to keep Sumner open. It’s the first African-American high school west of the Mississippi.”

Sumner and Vashon Homecoming

Vashon High School senior #5 Chris Dudley kisses his girlfriend Markita Allen after being honored during halftime on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, at the schools' joint homecoming game against Sumner High High School. Vashon honored all its senior players by presenting them with a framed jersey. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

At homecoming, alumni can indulge in nostalgia and reinforce their pride, despite the troubles that stalk their schools.

“It’s a certain kind of mental denial,” Thimes said of homecoming. “We kind of come back expecting things to resume where we left off, but the reality is that’s not the case, and that just walking the hallways now of Sumner doesn’t feel the same way that it probably felt for a great many people over the decades. The homecoming for the alumni and older folks is kind of a big, huge dream, or wish.”

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