Black to the Future: The History of Charles Sumner High School, and the Notable Alumni

Sumner High School celebrates 125 years educating Blacks in St. Louis, Missouri.


What we know as The Charles Sumner High School began in 1875 when the “High  School for Colored Children” opened in Saint Louis, Missouri. On October 12th of that year, the “School for Colored Children” was renamed “Sumner” in honor of Charles Sumner, a  senator from Massachusetts who had been an early and ardent supporter of Negro (Black) rights.

In its beginning, Sumner functioned as a combined grade school and high school. After all, only 76 of its 411 original students were prepared for high school work. The teachers and the principal all were white until 1877.

 At that time a special effort was made to recruit Black teachers from eastern colleges, because of the protest from Black parents. It was protest that led to the establishment of a Normal School program in 1890.

In 1895, Sumner moved a few blocks west to 15th Street and Walnut, in the shadows  of a new Union Station. This was the Elliot School, a three-story building, built in 1868. It  seemed to be Sumner’s fate to move into the vacated elementary school buildings after new  buildings had been built, further west in Saint Louis for white elementary students. 

By the year 1900, 224 girls and 24 boys had graduated from Sumner. In those days parental protest was powerful and respected. The parents of Sumner’s students clamored  for a safer and more respectable location for their children’s school. After a meeting with  the Saint Louis Board of Education in 1906 the “Board” purchased a site in Elleardsville,  known as the “Ville”, recently renamed “The Greater Ville”. “The Board” commissioned William B. Ittner to prepare plans for “A Complete and Commodious manual Training High and Normal School.” 

Thus, Sumner’s students finally had their new school building in  1909. The new building at 4248 West Collage (further west) was immediately put to good use with administrators and teachers providing “academic excellence” for all Sumnerites. 

Two years later Sumner was admitted to the North Central Association of Colleges and  schools. 

Ten years after this achievement, Sumner was invited to membership in the  National Honor Society. The world of education had a new champion in the Charles Sumner High School!

The year 1988 marked Sumner High School’s triumph of being placed on the  National Register of Historic Places. Sumner is the first public high school to be placed on this prestigious list.

Source: Sumner High School Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, May 2015

Partial Listing of Sumner Notable Alumni

Source: Wikipedia

Arthur Ashe (1943–1993), Hall of Fame tennis player; David Peaston (1957-2012), Famous R&B Singer; Ethel Hedgeman Lyle (1887–1950), Founder and “Guiding Light” of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated; Chuck Berry (1926–2017), iconic musician in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Lester Bowie, jazz trumpeter; Grace Bumbry (born 1937), opera singer; Baikida Carroll, trumpeter and composer; Alvin Cash, musician; Hon. William Clay (1931–), politician; Nate Colbert, baseball player; Billy Davis, Jr. (born 1938), singer, The 5th Dimension; Juan Farrow (born 1958), tennis player; Dick Gregory (1932–2017), comedian; Robert Guillaume (1927–2017), actor known for portraying the character Benson DuBois on the ABC sitcom Soap and its spinoff Benson; Victoria Clay Haley (1877–1926, class of 1895), suffragist and clubwoman; John Hicks, musician; Jessie Housley Holliman, educator and artist; Julius Hunter, retired Channel 4 television news broadcaster; Ivan C. James, Jr., engineer; Oliver Lake, musician; Naomi Long Madgett (1923–2020), poet and publisher; Robert McFerrin (1921–2006), opera singer and father of Bobby McFerrin; Gene Moore, basketball player; Oliver Nelson, jazz musician and composer; Bruce Purse musician, trumpeter, writer; Wendell O. Pruitt (1920–1945), pioneering military pilot and Tuskegee Airman in whose honor the notorious Pruitt–Igoe housing projects were posthumously named; Roscoe Robinson Jr (1928–1993), first Black to reach rank of four-star general in US Army; Harry Rogers, basketball player; Marshall Rogers, NCAA basketball scoring champion; Darnay Scott, former NFL player. Transferred after his sophomore season; Ronald Townson (1934–2001), singer The 5th Dimension; Tina Turner (born 1939), singer in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Arsania Williams (1886-1954), educator and clubwoman in St. Louis; Margaret Bush Wilson, first Black woman to head the board of NAACP; Olly Wilson (born 1937), composer.


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