By JOHN KIENER
“Enter to learn, depart to serve” rang out time-and-time again during the evening banquet in celebration of Langston High School at the storytelling Gala & Benefit held in Jonesborough’s International Storytelling Center Saturday night, Feb.16. This was the slogan of the high school in Johnson City that served the entire area of Washington County during a period of racial segregation from 1893-1965.
The nonprofit Langston Education & Arts Development (LEAD) and the City of Johnson City are collaborating in a public-private partnership to renovate and transform Langston High School into a new community-based, multicultural arts and education center. The city has allocated $1.8 million toward the project, while LEAD is working to raise the remaining $500,000 to completely fund the renovation of the building that housed the county’s all-black school.
Saturday night was one of those fund-raising efforts, but it was much more. Not only was the occasion a fitting celebration of Black History Month, the reunion of many Langston Alumni at the four-hour celebration demonstrated a devotion to a time when “It Was Ours.” This expression of “Langston High School Through Memory’s Eye” was emotionally expressed by Master Storyteller Shelia Arnold. During 2018 at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, she brought audiences to tears, laughter, and silence with her powerful stories and songs.
The Langston banquet Saturday produced these same emotions, with themes that were even more powerful and personal. There were not many present who could not say they watched and participated in the evening’s activities without laughing and shedding some tears.
The audience of 100 people heard Michael Young, Chairman of the LEAD Executive Board, begin the evening by stating, “Our goal with your help is to re-purpose Langston. I realize the role Langston played in our education. Our band was spectacular, our athletic teams excelled. Langston was so much more than reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s hard to convey the feeling of the school?”
Mayor Jenny Brock said “What a crowd” as she began her opening remarks. She asked those present to remember former Mayor & Commissioner Dr. Ralph Van Brocklin who, beginning in 2015, started work to restore the Langston building. She noted his observation that the building’s deterioration “should have never been allowed to happen.”
The mayor also recalled the seven girls who came to Science Hill High School in 1965 as desegregation of the city schools began. Several of those first black students were in the audience Saturday. They included Patsy Cornick and Linda Kyle.
They remembered the federal court case in Greeneville when U.S. District Judge Charles Neese ordered all schools in the district be open to all students. The judge said, “The court is not in the school business. But the court must see the law is obeyed.”
The ruling on Jan. 11, 1965 came nearly 11 years after the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a unanimous landmark ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine allowing racially segregated schools. Judge Neese said the complete desegregation of the Johnson City School system was to be completed in eight months.
Patsy and Linda were sisters (maiden names of Fields) who had been approved by the Johnson City Schools in 1964 as part of the initial seven to transfer from Langston High School to Science Hill because they wanted and could not get courses in Spanish, art, shorthand and some mathematics. In Greeneville, more than 100 black residents filed suit seeking full integration in all the city’s schools. By the time the lawsuit was filed, Johnson City Schools were integrated up to fourth grade under the grade-a-year plan put in place under the leadership of Superintendent Howard McCorkle.
When interviewed after the banquet program Saturday, both women said they encountered “no problems” in attending Science Hill. They both went on to business careers, one at Kingsport’s Quebecor and the other in the Southern Railroad office in Atlanta.
Mayor Brock talked of the new multi-cultural concept for a renovated Langston, much as the McKinney Center in Jonesborough is used by the community. She commented that “We have five new commissioners in Johnson City who all will be at the ribbon cutting.” The Mayor continued,” Work [on the building] is underway. The city will have a full time staff person and one part-time. This will be the best ribbon cutting I have ever attended.”
Rachel Smith, a student ambassador at Science Hill, was introduced by the mayor. The high school senior, who carries on the legacy of Langston, plans to major in environmental studies in college followed by the pursuit of a law degree after graduation. Also introduced was Evan Schmid, from the Science Hill Showstoppers. He delivered a prose piece by Langston Hughes titled “Thank You, Ma’am.” The school was named Langston Normal School for noted black leader John Mercer Langston, a Congressman from Virginia.
Storyteller Arnold’s presentation was both interactive and spellbinding. She knew the names of teachers, incidents at the school through the years and songs. The school’s alma mater, sang at her urging, brought musical harmony recited from memory by alumni members. There were recollections of arts week, the band marching through the neighborhood beginning at the school’s location at the corner of Myrtle Avenue & Elm Street, trips to Kingsport and Greeneville, going to restaurants and teen town. Arnold weaved into her presentation the story of integration and then how Langston was relegated to a school maintenance building and finally how “they let the building go.” She echoed the theme, “This was ours – it needs to be ours again.”
Arnold then recalled how “the people began to petition and to teach why the building was so important. Young people will walk up the stairs again. This time the doors will be open to all. We who walk by these doors will serve. I look forward to hearing those sounds.”
Audience participation began as Arnold talked to individuals who had “the legacy of Langston in your souls. I am of Langston Blood” she said as one after another of the alumni present told of the major corporations they had worked for and opportunities for higher education they achieved. Included was John Russaw, the first African American football player at East Tennessee State University, and William A. Coleman, Jr.,who spent 27 years in the Navy becoming a Captain, and later was on the Army ROTC faculty in the College of Business and Technology at ETSU. Carla Forney, a long-time pro bono advocate for Legal Services of East Tennessee, and Debra Gray, the first black to attend University School, spoke of their experiences. One-by-one each Langston alumni would stand up and say “I was the first black…” adding their job description and other achievements.” Finally, Michael Young commented, “I was the last Langston graduate.”
After the formal program and meal, a silent auction was completed. LEAD has not totaled all the proceeds from the evening’s event and auction.