This story will debut on “St. Louis on the Air” during the noon hour Friday. This article will be updated with the podcast version following the show. You can listen live.
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 historic Sumner High School — and other St. Louis Public Schools around the city. And in a matter of minutes, Ellis would be convening the first choir rehearsal at Sumner 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.”
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.
But 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 for students.
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, we’ll step inside Ellis’ classroom for a glimpse of how that first day went.
“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.
Originally Appeared Here