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Langston reborn: Town alderman continues work with city landmark

Adam Dickson, the Langston Centre supervisor and a Jonesborough alderman, is excited to help lead the former Johnson City African-American High School on to a new purpose and future.


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“It is important that all aspects of the community are engaged,” said Adam Dickson, Langston Center supervisor, as he prepares for the dedication of the remodeled school building in Johnson City that served as the African-American high school for Washington County during a period of racial segregation from 1893 until 1965.

The old school will soon be a cultural arts center.

Members of the community will be invited to celebrate the centre’s opening on Sunday, Nov. 17, from 2 to 5 p.m. Dickson envisions people walking from what is now the Princeton Free Will Baptist Church (formerly Thankful Baptist) at 104 Water Street to the Langston Centre location just off the Watauga/Unaka exit from Interstate 26. The walk will commemorate the journey students took in November 1893 when classes first began at the school.

Dr. Hezekiah B. Hankal (1816-1875), the African-American minister, physician and teacher for whom the Washington County Health Department Building is named, was instrumental in the establishment of Langston. Living relatives of Dr. Hankal are being invited to attend the dedication.

Dickson, who serves on the JonesboroughBoard of Mayor and Aldermen, was appointed to his supervisor’s post in July of this year. A 1996 graduate of David Crockett High School, he received a master’s degree in public administration at East Tennessee State University in 2004. He will be one of a four-person team tasked to provide programming at the Langston Center.

After use of the building as a school was discontinued in 1965, the facility saw service as the school maintenance facility for Johnson City Schools. In recent years the non-profit Langston Education & Arts Development (LEAD) and the City of Johnson City entered into a collaborative effort by way of a public-private partnership to transform Langston into a new community-based, multicultural arts and education center.

The result has been a renovation project totaling approximately $2.3 million. In addition, the City of Johnson City has received a STEAM educational grant at the rate of $103,000 for each of five years that will support educational programming for children in grades three through eight. 

STEAM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in five specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the five disciplines as separate and distinct subjects, STEAM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications. The grant will provide funding for an educational supervisor and three teachers at the school.

Adam Dickson is ready to get to work on the center.

“The opening of the Langston Centre is important today because of the national climate,” Dickson said. “It will emphasize inclusion and show people an approach to building community and respect for others. We want it to be the city’s multi-cultural hub. Once we begin programming, there will be activities for all ages.”

Heading a list of excited individuals anxious for the centre to open is Michael Young, the chairman of LEAD which includes a number of Langston alumni. He says the group has been meeting for four years working to celebrate the opening of the facility. Renovations to the building have been underway since 2018. 

In 1965, Young was the last graduate of the high school.

A variety of fundraising efforts by the LEAD organization have taken place, including an evening banquet featuring Storyteller Shelia Arnold at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough in February of this year that netted $10,000. LEAD pledged a campaign goal of $500,000 to ensure the building’s original design could be implemented.

The centre’s first floor will include three classrooms and a media center. Podcasts from the media center are anticipated in the future as well as video recordings recalling alumni experiences at the school.

Dickson hopes that video recollections will include historical accounts of places like Johnson City’s Roan Hill where a number of African-American families had houses. The families lived in an area where Pine Oaks Golf Course in now located. He also thinks there should be remembrances of the efforts of Washington County Commissioner Mary Alexander, now deceased.  She was an early leader in the effort to preserve Langston High School.

The second floor at the Langston Centre contains a large multi-purpose room (the school’s former gymnasium) that will have a stage. It is large enough for community events and can be configured for both programs and banquet arrangements. The finished Langston Centre will be fully heated and air conditioned. 

Randy Trivette, Johnson City’s director of facilities management, said CRC Construction Services is nearly finished with work on the building. The city’s public works department is scheduled to perform the facility’s grading, sidewalk construction, parking lot paving, curbing and landscaping.    

Still in process are the collection of artifacts from the school such as band uniforms, yearbooks, photographs and trophies, some of which are currently stored at the Carver Recreation Center in Johnson City. They will be arranged and displayed in cases on the first floor. 

Volunteers will be needed once the Langston Centre is open. Individuals who have artifacts or are interested in volunteering at the Centre can contact Dickson at (423) 676-5547.