This week’s post was inspired in part by an Etsy shirt listing the names of high schools around St. Louis, even a few miles out of the city. However, it did not list any historically African-American high schools.
These four schools date back to the 19th Century, but not many St. Louisans are aware of their history. Frederick Douglass High School in Webster Groves and Kinloch High School are both gone. However, Sumner High School (and Vashon High School) still stands in the City of St. Louis. The former is in a historic building, while the latter is in a newer one.
Without understanding the history and contributions of these schools, it is impossible to understand the history of St. Louis’ African-American community. They were vital cultural institutions–particularly in the years when graduation rates in America, in general, were very low. In the United States, for example, only 6.4% of 17-year-olds graduated from high school in 1899-1900.
In other words, education was a valuable goal to achieve especially in segregated St. Louis. Sumner High School was an icon in the African American community whose middle classes were centered in The Ville. Although it might seem odd, Sumner was not named as an African-American leader. Instead, Sumner was named after Charles Sumner (a white Republican senator from Massachusetts) who served during Civil War. Sumner is perhaps best remembered for his achievements, but his name is not often mentioned. He was the victim of a physical assault by Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery senator on the Senate floor. Sumner, a Radical Republican was perhaps inspired by that incident to become one of the most vocal champions for a strong war effort against the Confederacy and total emancipation of all slaves.
Sumner High School was the first African-American high school west of the Mississippi River. It offered several grades below traditional high schools. When it opened in September 1875, Sumner High School was originally located at 11th Street and Spruce. This was the former Washington School for whites. Sumner, like many African-American schools, occupied a building in poor condition. The new Sumner, located at 4248 Cottage Avenue, was opened in 1909. The burgeoning African American community made The Ville the center of its middle-class. African Americans were able to buy houses in The Ville, the only place in the city. Annie Malone, a millionaire, had her Poro College, an orphans’ home, nearby. Several decades later, Homer G. Phillips Hospital would rise just a block away.
The most remarkable thing about Sumner High School’s “new” Sumner High was the fact that the school district wasn’t giving African Americans an outdated building. Instead, it was giving them a brand new, Georgian Revival structure designed by William Ittner. It was built entirely from scratch. The building was state of the art and towered above the small houses of The Ville, as a palace for education.
This photo of the faculty is a great document about the pride that Sumner High School has. Former Comptroller Virvus Virvus Jones once said to me that back in segregation, an African American could “preach or instruct” and many of the Sumner High School faculty held Ph.D.s. They were also noted scholars or scientists in their respective fields. Sumner is home to many notable African-American cultural icons. It’s difficult to list them all here. Here’s a quick sample: Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry, and Dick Gregory. Tina Turner is also included
In the historic African-American community Mill Creek Valley, Vashon high school once stood at 3026 Laclede Avenue. It is now the campus of Harris Stowe State University. This second high school was opened in the middle of Sumner to provide services for the many students who couldn’t get to Sumner. The school’s name was changed to honor a family of African Americans. George Boyer Vashon, the first African-American to graduate from Oberlin University’s abolitionist institution, was also an educator in St. Louis.
Vashon moved to 3405 Bell Avenue after the Mill Creek Valley was destroyed in 1950.
Vashon, which was now on the North Side, was much closer to its students. Its building had an industrial, utilitarian appearance that was fitting of its name. This move brought back painful memories of the takeover of St. Louis’s poor schools. This was what Sumner experienced in 1875 and it was again happening in 1963.
As the structure began to deteriorate, it became evident that the building was getting old again. Although the old Hadley school building had its architectural charms and was replaced by a new one designed by KAI Design and Build an African-American architectural firm.