The latest round of proposed closures for Saint Louis Public Schools has targeted one of the most historic high schools in America: Sumner High School, the first African-American high school west of the Mississippi River. I’ve written about Sumner High School in the equally historic Ville neighborhood in the past, but I feel like it’s worth revisiting the hallowed halls of this “palace of education,” as I called it before. The closure of Sumner would leave the Ville neighborhood with no public schools, as far as I can tell. (The St. Louis School Board will meet again in March to decide whether to close the school.) And the 122-year-old building is not just another “aging” or “obsolete” structure. As a letter written by local arts leaders recently revealed, Sumner has been an influential force for African Americans in the arts.
Let’s start with Tina Turner. Born Anna Mae Bullock, she moved to St. Louis as a teenager, graduating from Sumner in 1958. Even as a student, she was already working with her future husband, Ike Turner. They played extensively around St. Louis and East St. Louis, at venues such as George Edick’s Club Imperial—which still stands abandoned at West Florissant and Goodfellow—and the now-vanished Manhattan Club. The rest is history: Tina would split with Ike after performing together for years, and her career would flourish even more. And it all began when she was a student at Sumner.
Chuck Berry attended Sumner a decade before Turner; he graduated in 1944. While there has admittedly been controversy surrounding Berry over the years, his place in the development of rock and roll cannot be denied, and his former home in the nearby Greater Ville, where he wrote many of his earliest hits, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Three members of the 5th Dimension also called Sumner their alma mater. Born in the 1930s, Lamonte McLemore, Ronald Townson, and Billy Davis Jr. all graduated from the high school in the 1950s. Their revolutionary blend of different styles of African-American music, and harmonies with their two female bandmates, brought the group mainstream success in the 1960s. Their sense of style and stage presence was also perhaps as famous as their music.
But I don’t want readers to think that the cultural legacy of Sumner lies merely in rock and roll and pop music. Classical music and scholarship also blossomed from Sumner alumni. Perhaps that is no better summarized than in Dr. Olly Wilson, who graduated from Sumner in 1955. It is next to impossible to summarize in words what Wilson contributed to the world in both his composing and scholarship. He was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied and taught African and African-American music, including figures such as Duke Ellington. Dr. Wilson also wrote his own compositions, receiving multiple awards from among others, the Lincoln Center in New York. Melding classical Western concepts with African traditions and even electronic instruments, Dr. Wilson also used his immense scholarly knowledge to deepen our enjoyment of music.
Robert McFerrin was the first African-American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, beginning his singing career at Sumner after moving to St. Louis from Arkansas. Graduating in 1940, he is perhaps more famous today for being the father of Bobby McFerrin.
John Josephus Hicks Jr. was a legendary jazz pianist whose musical training owed much to Sumner. Hicks played around St. Louis for a while, but then left for college, attending Lincoln University (as did many Sumner alumni) before enrolling in the prestigious Juilliard in New York. He gained national prominence while performing with former members of Duke Ellington’s band and Betty Carter’s band. Hicks began a solo career with Hells Bells in 1978. Known as much for his warm personality as his impressive piano playing, Hicks passed away in 2006 at the age of 64. A friend of Hicks, Lester Bowie, also began his distinguished career playing the trumpet at Sumner. He founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago and embraced a fusion of styles from multiple sources. Like his friend, he died young, at 58.
Grace Melzia Bumbry broke down the barriers in the world of opera, and she got her start at Sumner. Her rise to fame began at age 16, when she won a local talent contest. She attended college at Boston and Northwestern universities before training under the famous German opera singer Lotte Lehmann. Bumbry’s success was truly international, being the first African American to sing in many of the most famous opera festivals and houses throughout Europe, as well as back home at the White House in 1962 for the Kennedys. Perhaps most famously, she was cast as Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Bayreuth, Germany, rocking the opera world and establishing her place in history. Born in 1937, but still active, she has also taught classes in cities such as Berlin.
I think back to my own travels in Europe and the various academies and other famous institutions I have visited over the decades. Many have persevered for centuries through good times and sometimes through very bad times. It costs a lot of money to keep treasures open. But I know the Europeans I have worked with and consider friends would never imagine closing down a school like Sumner with such an august cultural history and legacy.