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Honoring a legacy: Town celebrates Ernest McKinney on day to remember

Dr. Ernest McKinney is remembered on this special day for the town of Jonesborough — as an educator, an alderman and a husband and father.


Staff Writer

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No matter where you look around Jonesborough, the legacy of Dr. Ernest McKinney has left a mark, not only in the town projects he helped to build, but also in the people he influenced.

On Wednesday, April 4, the Town of Jonesborough will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of McKinney’s initial election to the town board, proclaiming Wednesday to be “I Remember Ernest McKinney Day” to honor the man who has meant so much to Jonesborough.

“The purpose of it was just to take a moment and stop and say, ‘We remember Ernest, this was somebody important in Jonesborough, not only as a leader, but also as a person.’ He was an outstanding person,” Jonesborough Town Administrator Bob Browning said.

According to information supplied by the McKinney Center, which is named for the man himself, Ernest McKinney was born in Chesnee, South Carolina on Nov. 26, 1923 and moved with his family to Johnson City in 1936.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Agricultural & Industrial College in Nashville in 1947 and married his wife of 59 years, Marion, in 1950.

Ernest McKinney began his teaching career as a teacher and principal at Booker T. Washington School, now the McKinney Center for the Arts, and also taught at Langston High School and Science Hill High School, where he served as assistant principal.

McKinney also became the first African-American elected to the Board of

Mayor and Aldermen of the Town of Jonesborough on April 4, 1968, which was the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

“It was after Ernest was elected that we heard about it,” his wife, Marion,  said about that day. “It put a damper on everything. A lot of us cried. We were regretful. We all went home in our sorrow.”

Ernest McKinney, called ‘Fess’ – short for professor – by his students and his children, was reelected to the BMA in 1978 and was the first African-American elected to the Washington County School Board in 1980.

He eventually became the Chairman of the Board.

His wife said one of her husband’s passions was that he believed strongly in the value of education, not only with his students but his own children as well.

“He taught them how to use the tools, but they had to use them themselves.  He never answered their questions. He’d tell them where to go and get the answers.”

Marion McKinney also reminisced about the day they became engaged. She had known Ernest from her youth in Johnson City and was roommates with his sister at Swift while he taught there. “I fell in love with Ernest when we were at Swift.”

After Swift, Marion attended Tennessee State along with his sister and Ernest McKinney came to visit during homecoming.

“We were sitting in Hadley Park on the swing and he asked me to marry him,” she said.

McKinney influence, of course, went well beyond his family. 

“I’m a beneficiary, or a product of the example of Ernest McKinney,” Town Alderman Adam Dickson said. “We stand on (his) shoulders. So I’ve had a great deal of respect for Mr. McKinney. As I entered the political field, (the McKinneys) at various moments would have encouraging words and really tried to instill in you that ‘Yes you can. Don’t let anything or anybody stop you.’”

During his time on the BMA, Ernest McKinney provided leadership and helped many important projects that still resonate to this day, according to Browning.

He served in (former mayor) Jimmy Neil Smith’s administration,” Browning recalled. “And that board had a major impact on what’s going on in Jonesborough and Ernest was what I would consider a fierce leader in that time period in terms of looking at quality of life issues regardless of skin color or age or anything else.”

Former mayor Jimmy Neil Smith worked closely with McKinney and came to rely on his advice at times.

“When I had an issue that I thought I had a solution to I would always run it first by Ernest McKinney. And if you couldn’t convince him of the solution you don’t need to be proposing the solution,” Smith said.

“He was also honorable. You could always count on him to tell you the truth. Sometimes maybe you didn’t want to hear it but he’d tell the truth.”

Kelly Wolfe, who passed the proclamation as one of his final official acts as mayor, knew McKinney when Wolfe was a child and he said he recognized the impact this man had.

“He was somebody who was always positive, always encouraging and always pushing folks to do the best they could possibly do. I found him to be an inspiration,” Wolfe said.

While the Town of Jonesborough is asking residents and businesses to take the time to remember Ernest McKinney and to post “I Remember Ernest McKinney” on signs and social media, the McKinney Center is hosting a story gathering session Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Anyone willing to share an Ernest McKinney story is encouraged to share.  Jules Corriere from the McKinney Center said, “We have digital recorders and these stories will become part of our archives.”

According to Corriere, “What happened when Ernest McKinney was elected is he began a legacy of African-American participation on the BMA since that time and since then there has been a person of color on the board ever since.”

Browning recently shared his own McKinney story, which “is sort of at my expense.”

He said when McKinney was on the BMA with Smith, they were in the process of trying to balance the town budget.

“I was the Community Development Coordinator for the town at that point and they were within $300 of balancing the budget and they were looking around trying to figure it out … I can remember standing behind Ernest and Jimmy … and they were talking and they sort of sit back and took a breath and looked around and Jimmy turned around and looked at me and Ernest turned around and looked at me.

“There’s this conversation going on and they cut my salary by $300 to balance the budget. The way they did it, just looking at me and the look on their faces, I found it hilarious. They had given me a raise, they just reduced it $300.”

Former mayor Wolfe may have summed up the general opinion of McKinney throughout Jonesborough, “Ernest was a jewel of a man.”