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The making of the McKinney Arts Center

Walking through the halls of Booker T. Washington School brings back a painful memory for former student Alfred Greenlee.
He points to a classroom, and then to a set of doors at the end of the hallway.
“That’s where the teacher would send us to fetch the switch,” said Greenlee, who attended a kick-off celebration on Friday that marked the start of both an educational arts program and physical improvements to the former school. “That’s not such a good memory.”
But the memories aren’t all bad. Greenlee walked through those same doors to get outside to play basketball, although he laughingly admits it was never his best sport.
Now missing from the hall, he said, is a water fountain, where he would pretend to drink water if a teacher would stick his or her head into the hall while he was attempting to cause some kind of trouble.
“Everybody knew you could get into the hall and then pretend to drink water real quick if you were caught,” he said.
Memories like Greenlee’s are rare — he can still recite every one of his teachers and all of his classmates who graduated with him in 1944 — but the programs that will be headquartered at the old African-American school are aiming to make others’ memories a little more accessible in the future.
Through a partnership between the International Storytelling Center, the Town of Jonesborough, and the Heritage Alliance, officials are hoping to collect the stories, artifacts and memories of Jonesborough, beginning with those from the Booker T. Washington School.
The stories about Booker T. Washington School will be used as a springboard for the overall program of collecting the stories of Jonesborough, said Town Administrator Bob Browning. The project will culminate in a community performance in Spring 2011, most likely held in the old school.
The Heritage Alliance will also be involved in the physical aspect of the historic preservation during the conversion of the school, as well as in attaining artifacts from the past.
“Between 1930 and 1960, there’s a gaping hole” in the history collected from Jonesborough, said Justin Sanders of the Heritage Alliance. “That was when Booker T. Washington was in its heyday.”
Jonesborough acquired the school from the Washington County School System, who handed over the deed to the dilapidated school, which had been used for storage, in return for a $25,000 annual gift to the school system.
“We’re proud to be in a position to take the school back into use in community and to enhance the quality of life of Jonesborough,” Browning told the crowd gathered at the school on Friday.
The soon-to-be cultural center was, in late 2009, named for the McKinney family of Jonesborough. Ernest McKinney was a town alderman, and a former principal at Booker T. Washington.
“We’ve been talking about doing something [at the school] for a long time,” Browning said. “When you lose somebody like Ernest, it’s a wake-up call.”
Later, through a $400,000 donation from James C. Martin, the Mary B. Martin Program for the Arts was created. The program will include educational and historical enrichment programs which will be headquartered out of the school, but performed throughout the Town.
Both Ernest McKinney’s and Mary B. Martin’s pictures sat on easels in one of the classrooms on Friday, honoring the two people whose names the educational program and cultural center will bear.
“From what I’ve seen, I’m very excited [to see what the building will look like after it is spruced up],” Greenlee said. “I’ll definitely come and check it out then. But you know, I’ve been coming here even when it wasn’t getting fixed up.”
Greenlee should see his old school get a facelift hopefully by fall, according to Town officials. The school has already received a $50,000 energy efficiency grant from the Community Block Development Grants, and the Town is also pursuing grants from the Rural Development Administration and the National Trust of Historic Places, which has just opened a grant program for converting old schools into public use buildings.