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Celebrating heritage: Langston Happy Hour provides first-person history lesson

By JOHN KIENER

Associate Editor

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It was a family,” said Angelo Newman, a graduate of the last class of the all-Black Langston High School in Johnson City.  “It didn’t matter if you had kids there or not, if the school did an event, everyone was there,” added Evelyn Debro, a 1962 graduate. 

Debro and Newman spoke at the last History Happy Hour of the year moderated by Adam Dickson, Director of the Langston Centre promoting multicultural awareness and workforce development. By coincidence, the program was presented via Zoom on the exact date of the Centre’s one year anniversary. 

Dickson pointed out that during a portion of the period of segregation that lasted while Langston was in existence from 1893 through 1965, church and school were the two major institutions that brought Black people together. All three speakers agreed that the school where grades seven through 12 were taught carried out the objectives stated in Langston’s motto – “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.”  The motto is now preserved in a mural at the Centre. 

 “Those words just made you feel good. They used to be on display on a banner in the school,” Newman said. He added that to him it meant, “You could be successful in life.”

The school, with an enrollment of approximately 250 students, had teachers who were elite members of the Black community, Debro said. “They dressed for success, wearing the kind of clothes you wore to church. They were proud to be in their profession.”

Both Debro and Newman could name their favorite teachers. For Evelyn it was Callie Redd. She gave a presentation at the Langston Centre opening. Debro said that Redd and the other teachers at Langston “… made you want to be a teacher.”

Newman’s favorite teacher was science teacher Charles Douglas. 

“He built confidence in you,” Newman said. “He gave everybody he taught respect.” 

Dressed always in a suit and tie, he helped each student understand and appreciate studying science. Both speakers said the teachers knew the students’ parents and would visit at their homes. 

Debro and Newman could also recall the few teachers from Langston that ended up at Science Hill High School when integration took place in 1965 and the school closed.  A number of the teachers were assigned to junior high classrooms.

Integration went smoothly for the most part for the two Langston graduates, who did not attend Science Hill, they said. Debro had sisters who went to integrated schools in the Johnson City system. “They at first were belittled,” she said. 

Evelyn explained that advanced math classes were not offered at Langston. Also, Science Hill taught a number of classical subjects, like Latin.  Her sister would sometimes cry about the school situation at night but “she was determined to get it.”   

Debro discovered after graduation from Langston and leaving Johnson City that Blacks were more segregated in other parts of the country. She said she could try on clothes in department stores in Johnson City but was not allowed to do so when she went to stores in Atlanta where she had moved. 

“At a shoe store, the salespersons would trace the shape of your foot instead of letting you try on shoes.”  

Dickson in talking about the Black community in the segregation era commented, “A lot of people don’t understanding that even in segregation there was prosperity. Folks are surprised at that. I didn’t know I was poor until I was out of school.”  

Organizations like the Pro-To Club, founded in 1952 by influential Black leaders like Dr. Kilgore and Ernest McKinney, raised funds for Langston and provided scholarships.  

No one, however, had a car that was driven to school. There was no bus service, so all the city children walked to school. These students had attended grade school at either of the Black elementary schools at Douglas or Dunbar. 

A number of the students lived in the immediate area of Langston School. In Washington County, students were bused from Jonesborough, Limestone and Telford. 

Debro added, “Even though society told us we were limited because of our skin color, the school and the teachers said we could do anything we wanted to, but that we always had to do it better.”  This took place in a learning environment where Black students were studying from second-hand textbooks. 

Smiles lit up the faces of Newman and Debro when they began talking about activities outside the classroom.

“There were good sports teams,” Newman said.  

During the years he played varsity football under the direction of Coach Paul Chrisman, the school only tied one game to Chattanooga, and lost one game to Morristown. 

“All our other games resulted in victories.  We were green, lean and mean,” he said. 

After integration, Chrisman became an assistant coach at Science Hill. “During the time Langston played football, no white school would schedule us for a game. In basketball, however, we scrimmaged Hampton High School,” Newman said.  

Debro was a majorette. She said, “It was an awesome band.” The band had 42 instruments and even if you were a majorette, you had to know how to play an instrument because after the football season ended, Langston had a concert band. 

Debro and Newman recalled how the 42-member band plus the majorettes on Thursday would march from the school down Main and Market Streets to Memorial Stadium where the games were played. Langston played on Thursday night because Science Hill used the field for its games on Friday nights.  

The band attracted the attention of East Tennessee State University and marched at a number of the school’s homecoming games. The History Happy Hour speakers asked during the presentation that anyone having photographs, newspaper clippings or recordings of the band contact them.

Langston held homecomings and proms. The proms were in the school gymnasium, now preserved as part of Langston Centre. The prom queen was chosen on the basis of how much money you could raise for the school. Debro earned the prom queen title one year.

The ending to the Happy History Hour made viewers hungry. Langston had a cafeteria that was separate from the gymnasium.  “They were the best cooks in town,” both speakers said.  The fare included items like meatloaf, green beans, corn plus desserts.  “It was the way they made it.  The food could make your mouth water.”