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Roots run deep Vice-mayor, town mull over Black legacy


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he roots of those that were born in Jonesborough run deep under-

neath Main Street and beyond. For Jonesborough Vice-Mayor Adam Dickson, the history of African Americans in the area grounded those roots.
Growing up as an African American in the region, Dickson recalls the stories he was taught about those that led the way be- fore him and the world they grew up in, such as the first African Americans in office for the Town of Jonesborough and those that helped build the courthouse.

The schools throughout the region, he said, have their own story to tell.

“Schools in the late 1800s to mid-1960s were built to divide, that’s what it meant for African American students,” Dickson said. “Separate but equal is what they called it, but it was more separate and unequal. It furthered the systematic divide.”

According to Dickson, regional schools such as Langston High School, Douglass High School and Booker T. Washington were built for the sole purpose of educating African American students. And those are the only walls they were allowed to learn within.

Today, the walls of indifference have been torn down and new walls are now there to unite. In Jonesborough, the McKinney Center is just one example of communities turning separation into unity.

Jules Corriere, director of outreach at the McKinney Center, says that Booker T. Washington School, which is now the McKinney Center, was part of the Works Program Administration during the depression into the 1940s. The school housed grades first through eighth.

“The school opened to African American students in October of 1940 and was in use until integration in 1965,” she said.

The McKinney Center was one of many schools that was segregated.

“Jonesborough High School and Jonesborough Elementary School were segregated and did not teach African American students at the time. There were two teachers that taught at the Jonesborough Colored School, Ethel Brown, who taught grades one through four and Virginia Silvers, who taught grades five through eight. They both taught 25 years.

“African American students walked to Booker T. Washington, or took a flatbed driven by Mr. Rawlings in Limestone. Some walked as far as from Boones Creek to get to school,” Corriere said. “Jonesborough African American schools, such as Booker T. Washington, only taught students grades 1-8. African American high school students had to take a city bus to Johnson City to Langston, which is now the Langston Center.”

“From 1876 to 1917, the Warner Institute, established by Yardley Warner, was used for the education of freedman,” Corriere said. “The Warner Institute stated in 1876 that they ‘trained coloreds to teach’ and eventually transitioned to integrated in 1965. Earlier, from 1870 to 1876, the School for Coloreds was on Zion Hill at the old Zion Hill Church on 4th Avenue.

It was the first African American School in Jonesborough, ran by Reverend J.R. Judson.”

According to town officials, Booker T. Washington School replaced the Jonesborough Colored School, also known as “School on the Rocks” at 223 Spring Street.

The McKinney Center, started by Ernest McKinney and his family, has quite a legacy.

“Ernest’s wife, Marion, was one of two students that named Booker T. Washington School when she was a student there,” Corriere said. “82 years later, the school is named after her family. Ernest was the first African American Alderman voted into office in Jonesborough, April 4th 1968, the same day that across the state, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Ernest’s son Kevin would become the first African American Mayor and there has been an African American on the Board of Mayor and Alderman ever since.”

Dickson, who sits on the Board of Mayor and Alderman is proud to be a part of that legacy.

“It is wonderful to see a town like Jonesborough take the opportunity to mend wounds and think progressively and boldly,” he said. “By repurposing the McKinney Center to be unified and inclusive, it just says a lot about this town, and I am glad to see it spread.”

Dickson’s family has lived in Jonesborough his entire life. His father, Fred Venable Dickson, was born and raised in Jones- borough, and remained here to start and raise his own family.

“The earliest memory that I have being a little boy, my father had an old, beat-up Chevrolet truck, a black Chevy truck and he would look at me and say, ‘Son, you’re going to be a senator one of these days and when you run, we’re going to start in Memphis and we’ll work our way all the way back to Mountain City,” Dickson said. “And so, he saw something in me then that I didn’t even know existed. That’s my earliest memory of my father.”

Recently, Anne G’Fell- ers Mason, executive director for the Heritage Alliance in Jonesbor- ough, found a ledger that belonged to the Chester Inn. In it, she found the name of one of Dickson’s relatives.

“John Rhea was my great-great grandfather; his daughter, Jenny, was my grandmother. I assume he had limited school, but if he attended he would have attended colored schools. His daughter Catherine Rhea and my grandfather Larkin Dick- son met at the Warner Institute downtown.” he said. “It was such a bless- ing she found that ledger following my family’s his- tory here in Jonesborough and thinking of everything they saw.” Unfortunately, John passed away before he could see integration come to the schools in the area, but his own story helped pave the way for it to take place.

“I would like to think John would be very supportive and very excited about the fact that individuals who were one time excluded now have opportunities to exceed and achieve,” Dickson said.