By MARINA WATERS
Though Monday’s Peace Walk through Jonesborough turned into a ceremony at the McKinney Center, that didn’t keep community members from celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day and local civil rights leaders with a trip through history.
Due to the extreme weather, the event was held at the McKinney Center, which was named after Ernest McKinney, a Jonesborough African American leader, teacher and elected official. The building, now used as a local arts center, was also once the home of the Booker T. Washington School, which was built to educate African-American children during segregation.
“When we first opened the McKinney Center, it was our intention that it would be a space that would bring our community together and closer to the arts,” Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest said, “through storytelling and through programs that ignite our spirits — and to be part of something special.”
Scattered through the ceremony was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech recited by Michelle Treece, Paul Braxton, and Ken Bonner. But King’s speech wasn’t the only piece of history retold at the event.
Heritage Alliance Executive Director Anne Mason retold the story of Ford v. Ford, the Washington County court case that divided the white and African American sides of Loyd Ford Sr.’s family following his death.
Ford had issued a will that would free his slaves, some of which were also his children. In the will, they would also receive the majority of his estate, which caused turmoil amongst his white children. The court ruling took 10 years, Mason said, and made it to the Tennessee Surpreme Court where the will was upheld.
“Ford v. Ford was a monumental case for humanity,” Mason said. “It signaled a change was coming — change that would be long and hard and would take great sacrifice — but change that was pivotal to our nation. Just last year in 2019, the Ford family, which is very much still in the area, had a large family reunion and the whole family was there, both black and white.”
Jonesborough history was also at the forefront of the MLK celebration.
David Crockett High School student Ronquille Joyner retold some of Jonesborough’s own history through The Jonesborough Colored School and the Booker T. Washington School, the latter of which Joyner’s Grandfather attended.
Joyner mentioned educators such as Ms. Brown and Ms. Silvers and how a typical student’s school day would start at 5 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. and if they were lucky, they might be able to catch a ride to or from school on a flatbed truck rolling throughout Tennessee’s oldest county.
But for Joyner, those students’ “sense of purpose to carry forth to the future” made a difference in his own life.
“Whether my grandad or those individuals realize it or not,” Joyner said, “that purpose has made my life a paradise.”
Joyner was recently named an East Tennessee State University Roan Scholar and has been involved in numerous theatre productions at the McKinney Center. The high school senior said he attributes any of his success to his family and the community.
“Personally, I’m honored to have such a close relationship with the McKinney Center,” Joyner said, “And I hope I fully realize the blessing of the potential of that scholarship and the guidance that’s helped me get there. My grandad, my family, those whole community, you all have made me who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am without you. I wouldn’t be standing in front of you if it wasn’t for them.”
To conclude the ceremony, Katelyn Yarbrough, Inn Keeper at the Eureka Inn in Jonesborough, led the crowd in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 in honor of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and was later named the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s official song.
“Lift every voice and sing,” the crowd sang. “Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise.”