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Chester Inn provides look at Kingsport’s Black history

By JOHN KIENER

Associate Editor

[email protected]

 A series of mobile Black history panels from the Kingsport Archives is now on display at the Chester Inn Museum in Jonesborough.  The panels cover five topics of Black life in the neighboring Model City consisting of Black Churches, Douglass School, Fraternal & Social Organizations and Notable African Americans. 

The displays are part of “Black in Appalachia, an initiative of the East Tennessee PBS (Public Broadcasting System) designed to raise the visibility and contributions of the Black communities of the Mountain South. In partnership with the Kingsport City Archives & Friends of the Archives, the Kingsport Community History Project worked with communities in Sullivan and Hawkins Counties in Tennessee and Scott County, Virginia to make the information provided in the murals available to the public.

The Jonesborough exhibition is the first showing of the traveling displays outside of Sullivan County since the project was started in November 2018.  First chartered in 1822, Kingsport was developed as the industrial center of the Tri-Cities (Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City). Both free and enslaved people were living in and around the Model City at its inception.  In 1830, Sullivan County recorded 245 Free People of Color and 1,322 enslaved individuals.  

The city’s Black population grew significantly at the turn of the 19th Century as families moved from agricultural work to urban jobs and factory work. One such neighborhood created specifically for African Americans to live in during the Jim Crow era was Riverview Park, built on the site of a toxic waste dump. 

This review will mention subject matter in only two of these five panels but visitors to the Chester Inn Museum will want to read, view  and study all five of them.

Douglass School

Douglass School is called “The Heart of Kingsport’s Black Community” in the panel devoted to information concerning education. It closed in 1966 when Sullivan County Schools were fully integrated.  According to the mural: “Clubs, organizations and even on occasion churches gathered in Douglass after hours, transforming the school building into the seminal gathering grounds. Now the V. O. Dobbins Sr. Complex, the grounds operate [today] in much the same manner as a community center, now open to the public.”

Education in Kingsport traces its origins to 1892 when Oklahoma School was built.  It was the only school in the city for 20 years.  In 1913 another school building was constructed that would become Dobyns-Bennett.  Oklahoma became the Black School.  Improvements to the school were made in 1925 despite neighborhood objections by whites stating that the “Black school would drive their property values down.”   

The building was moved to a different location near the Railroad “Y” in August of 1925 and renamed Douglass School.  The former Oklahoma School site then became a place serving white students named the Robert E. Lee School.  In December 1927  Kingsport decided to construct a new school for Black students. Most of that original Douglass School still stands today now named the V.O. Dobbins Sr. Complex.   

The panel contains vivid descriptions of discrimination faced by Black students when the Kingsport School Board was required to follow the decision of the United States Supreme Court case of Brown vs. the Board of Education. At one such meeting on May 29, 1973, the mural reads: “Emotions ran high at the meeting as both students & parents voiced their experiences with racist backlash from attendance at Dobyns-Bennett.  Black student grappled with racism coming not only from white classmates, but from their teachers as well.”

Notable African Americans

Featured in a list of Notable African Americans are Cora Cox, Richard Watterson, Oscar Bond, Patrick Blake Leeper and V. (Van) O. (Omer) Dobbins.

Ms. Cox is cited in the mural as a “passionate teacher, a brave leader and a beacon of light in the Kingsport community.”  Born to a family of sharecroppers around 1916, she was the only person in her class to finish the eighth grade.   Cox obtained a college degree with a major in science, after which the panel states: “Cora landed her first teaching position in Nashville, Arkansas, where she instructed one hundred sixty first graders every day, and coached the girls’ basketball team.  In 1944, she began teaching & coaching second grade at Kingsport’s Douglass School.”   Earning a master’s degree from ETSU in 1958, Cox began teaching in the Sullivan County School System after Douglass School closed in 1967.  She initiated Sullivan County Schools’ first special education program for autistic children.  She was vocal and active in Kingsport’s Black community and was recognized as an ETSU “Outstanding Alumna” also receiving recognition as “Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year.” 

 “Richard Watterson was born in Sullivan County in 1926 — & early on, he frequented the newspaper in announcements regarding the achievements of Douglass students,” according to the Notable 

African Americans panel.  He served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II and after the war used the G.I Bill to obtain a college education.   He was active in a number of civic organizations including the Boys Club of Kingsport where he served as business manager.  The panel continues reading: “In 1973, Richardson Watterson became Kingsport’s first Black Alderman.  Over the course of the following two decades, Watterson was often the voice of the Black community in government.”  He became the first Black vice-mayor in 1981 – a post he maintained until 1995.  During his terms in office he frequently advocated for improvements for the Black community in open housing and continued to draw attention to racism.  On April 6, 2016, The Kingsport Board of Mayor & Aldermen proclaimed “Richard Watterson Day” in honor of the decades of public service he provided.  

Born in 1915 in Sullivan County, Oscar Bond spent his professional career as a chef at the Tennessee Eastman Company. A long list of his accomplishments includes church leadership, 29-year membership in the Elks Lodge including service as State President and active membership in the Hasan Shine Temple and the local NAACP.  He was president of Kingsport’s NAACP during “the post-Civil Rights landscape of the eighties.”  

“In 1989, doctors told Bill and Edith Leeper that, due to a congenital birth defect, their newborn son was unlikely ever to walk – Patrick Blake Leeper had been born without legs below his knees.”  This statement on a panel is followed by a list of accomplishments including a basketball career at Dobyns-Bennett and graduating in physics from the University of Tennessee.  On a whim he competed in the University of Oklahoma Endeavor Games and won three gold medals as well as qualifying for the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Team. There followed a string of track successes that included international competitions where he set an American record for the 400-meter dash in London in 2012. Visitors to the exhibit will want to read Leeper’s entire story including his efforts to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team where his time was sufficient but it was ruled his “prostheses” provided him with “an overall competitive advantage.”  

V. O. Dobbins – under the legend “A Legacy of Civil Service” is quoted as stating: “So trust people and do deeds for your adversary’s injurious words.  Kindness begets kindness.  There is no debt so heavy to a grateful mind as a debt of kindness unpaid.”  The panel continues: “Van Omer Dobbins was born in Columbia, Tennessee on July 29th, 1901.  As a young man, he managed the family farm until re-enrolling in the eighth grade at twenty-one years old.   After graduating from Tennessee State College in 1930, Dobbins taught vocational agriculture in Jackson, Tennessee until he moved to Kingsport where he would teach social studies, chemistry, and biology at Douglass School in 1935.” He became principal of the school in 1943.  In also helped his friends and neighbors, the underprivileged Black children, and encouraged “good citizenship” between Kingsport’s Black and white communities. 

The sketches provided in this article are merely an introduction to these Black informative history displays.  They will remain on exhibit at the Chester Inn Museum through the July 4th weekend.    The facility is now opened on Monday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 until 6 p.m.  Beginning in May, Wednesday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. will be added to the schedule.