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Historic Sumner High School Has Its First Choir In Decades

Maria Ellis leads Sumner High School music students in a singing and stretching exercise Monday afternoon.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Maria Ellis leads Sumner High School music students in a singing and stretching exercise Monday afternoon.

Standing in high heels in a nearly empty basement classroom Monday afternoon, Maria Ellis looked at the clock on the wall in expectation. It was the first day of school at St. Louis’ historic Sumner High School. And in a matter of minutes, Ellis would be convening the first choir rehearsal at the school in many years.

As Ellis waited to meet her students and help kick off a brand-new arts and activism focus at the recently saved school, Chuck Berry tunes played quietly through a speaker.

“When you really get to understand [that] the person I’m playing right now, the Chuck Berry, was in this space, to me that makes it so much cooler,” Ellis, a local choral conductor and radio show host, told St. Louis on the Air. “We’re going to talk about the legends that were here, and then we’re creating new legends that are going to go forward.”

The space where Sumner High School's new choir is now rehearsing two days a week got a makeover before class started.
Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
The space where Sumner High School's new choir is now rehearsing two days a week got a makeover before class started.

Opened in 1875 as the first high school west of the Mississippi River to award diplomas to Black students, Sumner has a rich history of accomplished alumni, including great musicians. In addition to Berry, the school boasts rock star Tina Turner and opera singer Grace Bumbry among its graduates, among many other luminaries.

Despite that impressive tradition, Sumner hasn’t had a choir in about 20 years, Ellis said. She was recently tapped to help change that, with local cultural institutions partnering with the school to bring in teaching artists, including her, to offer more arts classes.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, we stepped inside Ellis’ classroom for a glimpse of how that first day went. Fellow teaching artist Katarra Parson, a local musician, stopped by while waiting for her own class to start and became emotional watching the new arts program get off the ground at Sumner.

“This is everything that I wish I had as a kid,” Parson said. “I grew up in Wellston, went to public schools my whole life, had the same lack of resources. And it’s like — it’s a full circle moment for me. Just coming back and being able to bring art and music, and value and appreciation for it, back to the public schools is — it’s a lot for me personally.”

Inside Sumner High School’s First Choir Rehearsal In Years
Listen as producer Evie Hemphill stops by choral conductor Maria Ellis' first class.

She admitted to some first-day jitters, as did Ellis.

“I didn’t get a chance to audition students or meet them in advance. … I’ve got an hour to have them fall in love with me, and fall in love with music and want to be part of this magnificent program,” the choral conductor said.

“But if they do, let me tell you: We’ve got so much in store for them — not just regular choir performances and stuff like that, but I want to create a podcast. I want to use them in music videos. I want to teach them how to compose and produce and have recordings and stuff like that. The sky is the limit.”

Sumner High School senior Brian Keyes, a percussionist in the school’s band, was the first student to show up for rehearsal. He said he’s glad to see more arts opportunities returning to Sumner.

“My freshman year, there wasn’t a lot of classes,” Keyes said. “I came in the year they were taking most of the things out.”

The chaos of any first day of school was apparent, but by the end of rehearsal, Ellis had her new students stretching and beginning to sing, even with masks on. Any first-day hiccups didn’t deter Ellis. She remained hopeful about what the choir can do in the months ahead.

As students started to trickle out of the room, one student turned to another and said: “I like her. She’s cool.”

St. Louis on the Air plans to check in again with the choir soon.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.