Closing Sumner High School Is ‘Erasing American History,’ Supporters Say
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.
They were there to show more than the usual school pride. The alumni are rooting to keep the historic high school open for the next generation after St. Louis Public Schools put Sumner on a closure list, along with a dozen other school buildings this winter, part of a district-wide consolidation plan.
“It's just a big part of my life. And it's where I began to learn who I was,” said Eugenia Davis, who graduated from Sumner 50 years ago this spring and organized the rally.
The school opened in 1875 as the first high school west of the Mississippi River to give diplomas to Black students. Its alumni hall of fame includes famous rockers Tina Turner and Chuck Berry, comedian Dick Gregory and several Tuskegee Airmen.
“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,” said Pierre Blaine, who graduated in 1973.
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 is one of few remaining anchors of the Ville neighborhood — a once-thriving center of Black population and culture in St. Louis. Over the decades the surrounding neighborhoods have emptied, victims of first white, then Black, flight.
The city school district can’t be relied on to save city neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment, said Superintendent Kelvin Adams.
“It is literally dangerous” for students to walk around vacant homes to get to and from school, he said, and it is difficult to keep the school going without a viable community surrounding it.
On Sumner’s steps, a visitor can see the football field from which the Bulldogs dominated opponents for decades, winning four state championships. The homecoming game against crosstown rivals Vashon High School has been an annual pilgrimage back to the Ville every fall for thousands of alumni. Today, the school doesn’t have enough players to even field a team, in part because the view on the other side of the football field is of boarded-up schools and vacant lots.
Robin Witherspoon has fond memories of being a football cheerleader when she attended Sumner from 1977-81. She recently flipped through old 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 said. “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 persuaded the district to keep it open. Since then, 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 said. “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 said 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. And that's not happening right now,” he said about the alumni.
Davis and other alumni have spent the last three months working to get support for the school. With backing from arts groups and a historically Black college, Harris-Stowe State University, the district is considering putting new programs into the school to try to attract students from other parts of the city. Another proposal is to give Sumner its own advisory panel.
Adams has bought into the new ideas. He will present the plan to the school board Tuesday for a 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.”
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