ST. LOUIS • The line of Sumner High School alumni entering the Chase Park Plaza Hotel was relentless. Men in tuxedos and suits. Women in strappy dresses and long gowns.
For several hours Saturday night, they filled more than 80 tables inside the ballroom, representing seven decades of history.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve got more than 800,” said Camilla Banks, looking over the list, wondering if they would run out of tables.
They had come to celebrate a school with a rich history and strong ties amid a shaky future. Sumner has lost more than half of its enrollment in a decade. The school almost closed in 2009, and supporters are still working to prove it should remain open.
But this was a night chiefly about Sumner’s legacy.
The school marks its 140th birthday this year. There aren’t many things in St. Louis that can claim to be this old, or this significant. Sumner opened its doors in 1875 as the first public high school for black students west of the Mississippi River. It was during Reconstruction, the year the Kentucky Derby started and the year after the Eads Bridge opened. Ulysses Grant was president.
Providing black children with an education had been legal in Missouri for just 10 years.
At one point, Sumner enrolled singer Tina Turner, comedian and social activist Dick Gregory and tennis great Arthur Ashe. Thirty-seven Sumner grads became Tuskegee Airmen.
Sumner is where Johni Ola Spencer, class of 1943, began studying dance, later moving to New York and performing on Broadway. It’s where John Abram, class of 1964, discovered a love for mathematics and decided to become an engineer.
It’s where Terri Sellers, class of 2004, met teachers who opened her eyes to the world. After teaching in Alabama, Sellers returned to St. Louis. She now works at Madison College Prep High as a social studies teacher.
“To walk those halls — you have to be a part of it to understand,” said Monica Waller, class of 1988, who runs an event planning and marketing business in Maryland Heights. “It’s a history like no other.”
Over the decades, the world changed. So did Sumner.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
Sumner occupies a three-story Georgian Revival building on Cottage Avenue in the Ville neighborhood, once a prosperous black community northwest of downtown. Rock ’n’ roll legend Chuck Berry grew up here and gave his first public performance while attending Sumner.
The school had two addresses before moving to the Ville in 1910. A few years earlier, parents successfully pressed the St. Louis School Board to move the school from a downtown area filled with pool halls and saloons.
Until the Civil Rights Movement, schools in St. Louis were as sharply segregated as the city itself. Legal restrictions banned African-Americans from living in many parts of the city. As a result, the black population became heavily concentrated in and around the Ville. And the neighborhood became synonymous with black prosperity.
It had a hospital, a hotel, a teachers college. Family-owned businesses lined Easton Avenue, now Martin Luther King Drive.
Sumner was considered the jewel of the Ville, the place that launched many of its students into college and professions.
Alexander Boone, class of 1955, now lives in Florida. He and his brother, Leonard Boone, a Vashon graduate, stood at a mirror outside the Chase ballroom Saturday night and adjusted their ties.
“At Sumner High School — you couldn’t wear Levi’s,” Alexander Boone said. “You had to have your pants with creases in them.”
“You had a real dress code,” Leonard Boone said. The two laughed.
It’s common to hear Sumner alumni refer to the “old” and the “new” Sumner. What’s not clear is when exactly the old became the new.
In recent decades, residents have left the Ville for other parts of the city and for the suburbs. They left cramped living spaces for newer and bigger homes. In the suburbs, they also found better-funded schools.
The migration drained the Ville of what had been its strength: middle-class families. Occupied apartments and houses now sit among decaying, boarded-up buildings.
By the 2000s, most teenagers living in neighborhoods surrounding Sumner were choosing other high schools.
Some were choosing magnet schools — district schools that offer students emphasis in certain areas, such as career training or the performing arts. Others were opting for charter schools — tuition-free public schools that operate independently of the school district. Another significant number were crossing district lines to attend county schools as part of the voluntary desegregation program.
Sumner’s academic performance fell to among the worst in the district as violence from the neighborhood crept onto campus.
In 2009, Superintendent Kelvin Adams moved to close Sumner. Alumni immediately objected. They met with Adams and promised to do whatever they could to turn the school around. They promised to get parents involved, to mentor students and volunteer at the school.
On Saturday, Adams stood in a tuxedo before the Sumner alumni, congratulating them on the school’s anniversary.
“We are committed to ensuring the kind of legacy that Sumner has had for 140 years continues for another 140 years,” he said into a microphone.
Adams has been watching Sumner closely. Things have improved since 2009 — though not by much. Graduation and attendance rates are up, but neither are satisfactory by state standards. Math scores have slightly improved, with about 13 percent of students proficient in math in 2014. Reading scores this year were slightly down, with about a quarter of students proficient.
The school has been a revolving door for principals. At the Chase, Adams introduced Sumner’s new principal, Michael Triplett.
“I was charged with two things,” Triplett told the crowd. “One, to build an institution of excellence at Sumner. To rebuild it. I was also charged with bringing back Sumner pride. With you, with your support, we will bring back Sumner pride, Sumner excellence!”
The ballroom broke into applause.
‘A SENSE OF HOPE’
Over the past two years, a group of Sumner alumni have gone beyond volunteering at the school and developed a proposal to take over operation of Sumner. It was in response to the district’s search for contractors to operate its lowest-performing schools.
The group, which includes Lynn Beckwith Jr., a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former University City schools superintendent, and John Wright, a former interim St. Louis schools superintendent, proposed to take over the staffing and curriculum decisions for an agreed period. The group created a nonprofit organization and proposed to reinstate the “Brantley Doctrine” for academic excellence, named after George Brantley, a principal who led Sumner during its golden years, 1929-68.
The district turned down the proposal.
“It was a very well thought-out and mapped-out proposal,” said Lou Thimes Jr., who led the effort. “We asked for feedback. We asked for other ideas from them, but so far we’ve not gotten any response.”
Thimes worries the district’s ultimate plan is to close Sumner.
In 2014, the district closed Beaumont, another comprehensive high school, after years of declining enrollment and poor academics. Sumner’s enrollment continues to fall, dropping to 579 students in 2014 from 1,252 in 2005, according to the state. The third floor of the building is now largely vacant.
At the gala, many alumni said they intend to fight to keep Sumner’s doors open. But they also want students to receive an education similar to the one many of them received decades ago, when the Ville was synonymous with black prosperity.
Today’s Sumner students are far more likely to come from impoverished homes, and come to school with emotional and social needs.
Warice Davis, a 1980 graduate of the school, returns to Sumner often and talks with students. She works as a compliance monitor for St. Louis Public Schools.
“Sometime when I talk to them I hear more of, ‘I’m more afraid to live,’ more than, ‘I’m afraid to die.’”
The sense of despair is strong, Davis said. The sense of security she had walking to school as a teen in the 1970s is gone.
“My concern isn’t that Sumner might close,” Davis said. “My concern is more — how do we capture the students and give them a sense of hope?”