“Pups” as the new generation of Sumner High School students are affectionately called in a mentoring and loving way by the school’s alumni of yesteryear.
Sumner graduates, as far back as the 1940s, are cuddling and nourishing current students in each grade level to assure that future graduating classes of the first African American high school west of the Mississippi River know what it means to be a Bulldog, the school’s mascot.
The school was birthed when segregation and racial discrimination in education were the rule. Black teachers, students and supporters had to fight dearly for the opportunity to teach and learn in a conducive environment.
As a result, in its 148-year history, Sumner produced a “Hall of Fame” that includes notable personalities in business, education, media, politics, entertainment, lawyers, military, religion, government, medicine, science, sports and other occupational disciplines, as well as individuals who reaped a value of an education steeped in a tradition of excellence.
“The comradery, purpose and necessity that makes Sumner ‘Sumner’ is not as deeply grasped by students as it once was,” says 1971 Sumner graduate, Eugenia Davis, president of the Sumner Alumni Association STL. “They haven’t experienced that level.”
“The shoulders that we stand on, the people who have come through Sumner – the list is endless,” Davis says. “To be a Sumner Bulldog means so much. We bleed maroon and white, our school colors. Bulldogs forever.”
To keep the name Sumner forever relevant, the alumni association is hosting its 20th anniversary titled, “Coming Home Round-Up Celebration,” 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, February 26 in the Sumner Annex Building, 4245 St. Ferdinand.
The gathering will recognize charter members and new inductions into Sumner’s Hall of Fame. The event will include performances by Nostalgia, Sumner Arts Pathways, Sumner’s JROTC and cheerleaders, a student alumni/student a cappella Choir, vendors, souvenir items and more.
For more information, call the association’s hotline at 314-345-2676.
Patricia Bell, a 1964 Sumner graduate, recalls that many of the new teachers were first generation, college educated professionals who demanded excellence from students. Bell sang in the a cappella choir, performing in such places as the St. Louis Symphony, which was new territory for black youth at the time.
“They believed in exposing us to any and everything; they didn’t want us to be limited,” says Bell, who is a retired SLPS teacher having taught at the elementary and middle school levels. She finished her career at Beaumont High School where she worked for 23 years.
“We were always taught that we were among the elite,” Bell says.
Mellve Shahid Sr., a 1972 grad, says his time at Sumner is one of his most cherished memories of his life. Shahid is a 16-year prostate cancer survivor and is founder of The Empowerment Network Inc., a nonprofit advocacy and education organization that helps men navigate through the disease.
“I’m proud to be a graduate and alumni of this great institution of learning,” he says. “The lessons I learned there instilled and shaped the character in me to be the best, because I came from the best. Long live Sumner High. Bulldog 4 Life.”
The role Sumner played in higher education. In 1857, St. Louis Public Schools established a normal school (teaching college) for white students. It wasn’t until 1890, that the city school system established Sumner Normal School to train black teachers. In 1929, its name was changed to Stowe Teachers College, which is now Harris Stowe State University, named after author Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had promoted the abolitionist cause in the antebellum United States.
“You see, Harris Stowe was born out of Sumner,” Davis says. “The history is so deep. We had to create a college to go to, so we could train black teachers.”
At its peak in the 1940s and 50s, Sumner had an enrollment of 5,000 students. Today, the student body population is around 200 pupils. Sumner’s annex building houses the Northside Economic Empowerment Center under the umbrella of the St. Louis Development Corporation.
The St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (S.L.A.T.E.) is operating there along with the Annie Malone Therapeutic Academy.
“We have a rich and powerful legacy that we want to keep alive and well, to make sure the doors of Charles Sumner High School remain open as an elite institute of learning,” Davis says.