Two schools with a lot of history behind them will take the field Friday night when Sumner High School, a St. Louis city school, visits Salem.
We all remember the late 1990s and early 2000s when Salem was a football power, during one four-year stretch owning the best record of any high school in Missouri.
Sumner has a history too, though it is not of the football variety. The school was the first black high school west of the Mississippi River, and during the 1940s through 1960s, it produced two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, a Wimbledon champion, an Emmy-winning actor and plenty of activists and professionals who helped change America.
In its heyday, Sumner was located in the midst of St. Louis’ middle- to upper-class black neighborhood. There were lots of school clubs, sports teams, parental support in the safe neighborhood, as times changed and there were many more opportunities for black people in America.
Sumner was more than up to the challenge and left a legacy.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famers? Chuck Berry and Tina Turner. Wimbledon champ? Arthur Ashe. Actor? Robert Guillaume of the TV show Benson.
Sumner High School, opened in 1875 when Ulysses .S. Grant was president, is in a three-story Georgian Revival building on Cottage Avenue in the Ville neighborhood northwest of downtown.
Back in the day, students couldn’t wear Levi’s, and boys’ pants had to have creases in them. Today, the school’s dress code has changed as much as the school.
Sumner is a school with a strong past and a shaky future. As time passed and the Ville eroded, Sumner eroded.
Many middle-class families have moved out of the Ville. Like much of the inner city, crime is rampant. Academics, declining enrollment and bad behavior at the school have left it on the brink of closure, and had it not been for its place in history and a fervent alumni effort, Sumner would have closed and Salem would have had to look elsewhere for a Week Two opponent.
Sumner is a shadow of its past. Team football captain, Rahmel McNeil, 17, was shot to death a stone’s throw from his house in 2010. He got in a fight with another teen, who told yet another teen to shoot McNeil, and he did. The price the kid paid for pulling the trigger was life in prison plus 30 years. That same year, mace was used to break up a gang fight on school grounds.
In 2015, people took cover as shots rang out outside of Sumner High School during a football game between Vashon and Gateway STEM. No one at the game was hurt, and soon after, the game resumed.
Many of the players who will take the field for Sumner Friday night are much like McNeil, a teen who saw education, and sometimes sports, as a way to escape what the Ville has become. We read and hear every day about the plight of young black men in the inner cities, and Friday night they will visit Salem.
We need to cheer fervently for the Tigers, but we also need to cheer for the Bulldogs in maroon and white. The stakes and the obstacles for them are much higher and more formidable than for our kids in blue and white. They all need support as well as prayers.
Sumner and the Ville is a world most of us know little about and won’t go near, a world where gunshots and screams pierce a quiet night instead of chirping crickets and our neighbor’s barking dogs. Opportunity for youth doesn’t knock as often in Sumner as it does in Salem.
Anyway, I wrote about Sumner today because I think it is important that when Salem’s Big Blue takes the field Friday night, you know a little more about Sumner’s Bulldogs than the fact they are a St. Louis city school.
We need to root for our Tigers, and when the Bulldogs hop on the bus for the trip to back to the Ville, we need to keep remembering and rooting for them, too.