A History of Vashon High School
Late in the first quarter of the 20th Century, Sumner High School was the only high school, due to the laws of segregation, that African-American students could attend. Located just west of the Ville neighborhood, Sumner was suffering from severe overcrowding. It was also a high school that was a good distance from the growing Mill Creek Valley Area. In 1922, a group of diligent citizens called The Central School Patron Association, with Rev. George Stevens, and several other community alliances started plans for a second high school that would be built and designated for African-American students. It took several years, but finally they convinced the St. Louis Board of Education to build a new high school east of Grand Avenue.
A proud family dating back three generations gave their name to the new high school. It would be known as Vashon High School. It was the culmination of struggles and sacrifices made for the sake of education and dedicated to the importance of that education and the battles to secure both civil and human rights for African Americans. Specifically, it was named for George Boyer Vashon (1824-1878), the very first African-American graduate of Oberlin College (Ohio) in 1844 and his son, John B. Vashon (1854-1924), an outstanding educator in the City of St. Louis for over 34 years. Ground-breaking for the new high school was in 1925. On September 6, 1927, Vashon High School opened at 3026 Laclede Avenue, on budget ($1,180, 790) and on time.
The first principal of Vashon High School was James W. Meyers who served from its opening in 1927 until 1932. The first school news paper, The Herald, was published during his tenure. A faculty member, Otto Bohannan, was the composer of our school song Vashon We Love. The very first graduating class on January 24, 1928, was comprised of twenty young men and women. Vashalma, the very first yearbook came along in 1929, but the name was later changed to “The Wolverine”, the school’s mascot.
The class of 1931 was the first graduation of students who had attended Vashon High School for four complete years. For the next 36 years the students of Vashon established it as a premier educational institution, known for its academic curriculum as well as its athletic programs. Many students sharpened their talents, skills and abilities, becoming future educators, community leaders, politicians, clergymen, homemakers, professional athletes and entrepreneurs.
Following James W. Meyers as principal came a list of illustrious educators: Frank L. Williams (1932-1940); William G. Mosley (1940- 1955); C. Spencer Tocus (1955-1957); A. C. Phillips (1957-1961) and again C. Spencer Tocus (1961-1963).
Early in the 60’s the enrollment of Vashon had severely diminished. The students, alumni and particularly the residents of the Mill Creek Valley area were unaware that thirty years before, their neighborhood had been targeted for obliteration to make room for an expanding central business district. The neighborhood was systematically dismantled. Relocating families were directed north and west, away from Vashon. With the population now dropping faster, operating Vashon was feared to be no longer cost effective. The St. Louis Board of Education voted to close Vashon High School at 3026 Laclede Avenue.
The Vashon Building was to become Harris Teachers College, and at that time operated by the St. Louis Public School District.
Vashon High School’s history was to continue. It would now be transferred to its second location at 3405 Bell Avenue at the beginning of the 1963-64 school year. This controversial move created deep, harsh feelings that would last for years. The ensuing classes of 64, 65 and 66 dealt with leaving the original building with mixed emotions. After all they had been expelled from a building that was built for them and placed in a second hand structure that had housed whites only - Hadley Technical School. But, the indomitable Vashon Spirit still surged in the staff, students and faculty who had brought with them the high educational standards, drive and determination that prevailed on Laclede Avenue. This resulted in the first complete four year class to graduate from this site in 1967.
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes of despair, Vashon rose from the disappointment of losing its building. Academics flourished and the athletic prowess of its students gained national recognition from basketball teams coached by George Cross, Ron Coleman and Floyd Irons. The Marching Wolverines directed by O’Hara Spearman was a much sought after addition to every parade or celebration all over St. Louis. The Thespian Society under the tutelage of Aaron E. Murphy produced and directed the biannual talented celebration of Vashon’s student body and staff, a rousing variety show titled “Vashon Requests the Pleasure” in a spring performance, and another in the fall. Vashon blossomed in its new location.
The principals who served at the Bell Avenue location were John E. Anderson (1963-1968); Julius C. Dix (1968-1970); Ralph A.Wardlow (1970-1976); Cozy Marks (1976-1978 and 1990-1991); Michael K. Thomas (1978 - 1986); Floyd Irons (1986-1990 and 1995-1996); Ivory Lofton (1991-1994); William O. Baldwin (1994)-1995); and Dorothy B. Ludgood (1998-2002).
In 1972 a school segregation lawsuit required that St. Louis Public Schools leave the schools of St. Louis city nearly abandoned after busing thousands of students to surrounding school districts. Each day from 1983 until 1999, thousands of city children traveled several miles to county schools. In the mid-80’s a school bond issue passed providing millions of dollars for school renovation. This was a part of the law suit settlement. Following the renovation of several schools, students, faculty alumni and concerned citizens began to wonder when Vashon would be renovated. A group of alumni asked the direct question of the Board of Education. Their answer was: Funds allocated for the renovation of Vashon had been spent on other schools. Why? Because the Board was considering closing Vashon High School. That sent up a hue and cry to Save Vashon.
Vitilas “Veto” Reid, Robert Spain and the original alumni group and several other community leaders became the Save Vashon Committee. With Reid and Spain as leaders they engaged the Board of Education, the State of Missouri and numerous federal judges in a battle that lasted more than ten years. Their urging was not just to save Vashon, but to build a new facility. Funding this project was a primary concern because funds were already committed to the lawsuit settlement.
During this same ten years, court ordered busing had continued. The state of Missouri asked to be relieved of this financial obligation. St. Louis Public Schools felt that it had done its part to help desegregate the schools. The court appointed William H. Danforth to negotiate a settlement. Major capital improvements were a part of the agreement, including the building of several new schools. The building of several new schools would accommodate the more that 14,000 students who would return to the district once busing came to an end. Once again, funding for Vashon High School became a major issue, the controversy over whether or not it would be built raged again.
In 1998, the state passed Senate Bill 781. In this bill spelled out Missouri’s financial agreement to off-set funds if the court order ceased. It also contained a provision that required the City of St. Louis to increase taxes for additional funds before the State’s money could be used. The following year the citizens of St. Louis were asked to support a tax increase that would fund the renovation of existing schools and build several new schools in north and south St. Louis. This collaborative effort with community organizations in north and south St. Louis and the passing of the tax increase paved the way for a brand new Vashon High School.
The ground-breaking ceremony for the new Vashon was held on May 3, 1999. After 15 years of struggle and waiting, On September 3, 2002 Vashon High School opened in its third location, 3035 Cass Avenue with Dorothy Ludgood as principal. The 40 million dollar, state-of-the- art complex houses 1,300 students, has 13 science and computer labs, 4 early childhood rooms, an attractively spacious library and media resource center surrounding the sky-lighted rotunda. For basketball there are competition and practice courts, and a 25 meter swimming pool for aquatics programs. Classrooms of varying shapes added to the rotunda theme branch out to for an efficient layout with spacious halls and no wasted space.
In 2003, the Julius C. Dix Auditorium, a 500 theater seated, semi-circle was added at an additional cost of $2.5 million dollars. The class of 2002 was the first graduating class, although they had not attended classes at the new Vashon. Principals serving after Dorothy Ludgood, were Floyd Irons (2003-2004) who was the only principal to serve at two sites; Verona Bowers (2004-2005); Calvin Starks (2005-2006) and the current Principal L. Barbara L. Sharp, who is working to restore much of what has been lost through the years to Vashon, and succeeding.
Today, the true spirit of Vashon High School has again risen like the Phoenix, and reigns supreme on Cass Avenue. Like the phoenix, it is housed in a facility worthy of Vashon’s rich heritage and the long-standing tradition of producing well-educated, civic-minded community leaders and caring, aware citizens as an integral part of St. Louis, Missouri and the global community