Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Langston's 2014 Alumni Reunion: 38 Years of Memories


"I don't know what it is with this particular reunion.. but this is the most exciting one yet."

Langston High School alumni spokesperson Barbara (Bobbie) Waterson has seen most of Langston's alumni get-togethers every two years. Going into them, she says, often the reunion committee doesn't really know how many people are coming.

2014 was different. The excitement level was higher.

And nobody knows why.

"This one has been so much different," she says. "Everybody is so jubilant, so keyed up.. they've been buying Langston souvenirs like crazy.. they seem so full of school spirit. Anything with Langston on it.  I don't know what caused it. Everybody has been wanting to do something, wanting to get in on it.. what do you need done.. what help do you need, what can I do. I'm liking it, but I'm a little amazed."

"You'd think it was the first reunion."

The key to a successful reunion, Waterson says, is to get the alumni base energized.. get them geared up for what will be a good time.

"I tried to send out reunion letters that were upbeat and positive," she remembers. "I always talk about yesteryear and the Langston Spirit, and how we can't let that die. I try to tell them things that make them want to go 'yeah, I want to come back, I want to go there, I want to see what's going on. It's just been a different atmosphere in the whole thing this time. I can't put my finger on it, and I don't know what changed."

"Whatever it is," she laughed, "I like it."

As Langston alumni gathered at the Carver Recreational Center on July 5th to register and meet and greet each other, Kenneth "Herb" Greenlee was hard at work on a project to honor former classmates who were memorable in school activities. Many of them went on to achieve fortune and honor in their respective lives, while living up to the school motto of "entering to learn, departing to serve."

It's the Langston Wall of Fame, to be located just inside the Rec Center, in the Langston Memorabilia room.
"We talked about it several years ago, maybe 3 or 4 reunions ago," Greenlee says. "During those times, we started inducting people into the Wall of Fame. Whether they did sports or music or some type of club, from 1892 all the way up to 1965 when the school closed, we want to give them some type of recognition and commemorate what they did while at Langston and beyond."

Greenlee says he's been working on the mechanics of the Wall for some time.

"I'm not a carpenter or a designer," he says, "but I wanted to at least get the ball rolling on the project and get our people recognized because we did decide to do it. Young people can come in and see the history of the folks who went to Langston. This exhibit will make them ask questions.. questions about their own heritage. It will also provoke conversation among people in Johnson City who did not attend Langston. This shows them that we, as alumni, are proud of the people who went here.. this is why we're proud of them. This is what they did, that stood out."

"Many of their families came to Johnson City to live," Greenlee says, "and they came to Langston to learn."

"It's part of Langston's heritage," he says. "It's important and you don't let that be forgotten. That's what the Wall of Fame is all about."

The Langston Wall of Fame was just one area that got visiting alumni fired up during the 2014 Meet-and-Greet session.

There were many other events awaiting them, that made this a special reunion for the Langston faithful.

"We've got some wonderful, exciting things for them to do while here," says Watterson.

"This reunion will be just like a big homecoming, and we don't plan to let them get bored with nothing to do."




Johnson City's West View Cemetery: History Laid to Rest that Lives On


"I wonder where my mudder gone; Sing, O Graveyard!

Graveuard ought to know me;  Ring, Jerusalen!

Grass grow in de graveyard;  Sing, O Graveyard!

Graveyard ought to know me; Ring, Jerusalen!

Negro Spiritual ---

It has been said that probably the most sacred ground to an African-American, is not their land or physical home.

It is the cemetery.. where the remains of their ancestors lie in eternal rest.

From the time of slavery, black people held the lowly ground where their loved ones are entombed.. a reverent ground unique to the struggles that hallowed ancestors endured during their lives. A place where their bodies, made by God from the earth, returned "ashes to ashes... dust to dust."

Back in the day, many places in our country would not allow black people to be buried in white cemeteries, no matter how reverent ancestors were held in regard. Burying black people alongside white people was just not allowed. As a result, to be "separate, but equal," many communities allowed grounds for African-American cemeteries to be established.

The West Lawn Cemetery in Johnson City, Tennessee is one of those African-American cemeteries.

West Lawn holds the remains of many of the area's black citizens, including those whose contributions led to the very beginnings of the city. About 40 Langston alumni visited the cemetery as part of a tour of historic sites notable to African-Americans who grew up in the area.

A check of the tombstones shows, the earliest one appears to be 1903. Alexander says, some graves were moved here to West Lawn from Preese's Hill Cemetery (now called Roane Hill), and there are graves here dating back to the late 1800's.

"If you were black and living in Johnson City after the early 1900's," says historian Mary Alexander, "this is where you were buried. Unless you were buried in Jonesborough, at the VA or in private family cemeteries out in Washington County, West Lawn is where your family buried you. These people were the foundation of black people in Johnson City and beyond. Even now, if you live in Johnson City or have relatives here, you'd be hard-pressed to not have relatives buried here."

Amongst the hallowed ground, is the family plot of Dr. Hezekiah Hankal. The following passage is from the "Langston Heritage" page of Johnson's Depot (along with Johnson's Water Tank, one of the early names for Johnson City):

Dr. Hezekiah Hankal, one of the Founding Fathers of Johnson City, purchased town lot number 12 from Henry Johnson in June 1869 for $300 as a site for the Colored Christian Church. Dr. Hankal helped start a number of historic black churches throughout Northeast Tennessee. Born a slave in 1825, he was reared in the Dutch home of James and Nancy Hankal in what is now Gray, Tennessee and was fluent in Dutch and several foreign languages."

"The cholera epidemic in July, 1873 brought Dr. Hankal's medical skills into prominence in the white community as his patients lived while many of his white colleagues' patients died. An interracial medical practice began that continued until his death in 1903. Dr. Hankal also was elected alderman in Johnson City in 1887 and his unique combination of medical expertise, educational and spiritual leadership, as well as service as an elected official is noted by several Tennessee Historical Society markers in Johnson City."

"Dr. Hankal had 10 children," says Mrs. Alexander. "His wife was from the Netherland Inn Road area in Kingsport. Richard Netherland had a slave, whose picture is in the kitchen at the Netherland Inn. The woman in the picture is Dr. Hankal's mother-in-law."

In addition to Dr. Hankal's headstone, there are several headstones locating the graves of Dr. Hankal's descendants. Being in the presences of the one of the founding families of Johnson City (and African-American at that), gave many of the tour visitors chill bumps.

"This is indeed sacred ground," one visitor was overhead to remark. "This ground is important. Our history is here."

That thought was echoed by Mrs. Alexander.

"I've told my own children that, even though I have ground at Washington County Memory Gardens, when I pass, just cremate me and scatter my ashes at West Lawn," she says. "This is where our people are. We're getting ready to apply for a Tennessee Historical Marker for this spot, and we already have donations for it. It will designate this cemetery as black heritage ground, for others to commemorate and honor."

Mrs. Alexander says, young people will benefit from knowing how historic the West Lawn Cemetery is.

"Young people need to know where their grannies or their somebodies are, who are resting in this spot," she says. "See that man over there.. the man in the green shirt? He's a retired engineer.. has no people here, no connection to this cemetery at all. But he says, he was 'called here.' Some people are called within themselves to to volunteer work. He has worked in this cemetery and uncovered unmarked graves that have been hidden for years.. nobody really knows how long. He's also worked in the black cemetery at Jonesborough. For him, cemetery headstones are not just markers.. they represent a person."


The visit to West Lawn Cemetery opened the eyes of all of the Langston Alumni who visited.. some of them for the first time.. for others, a return visit after years of absence. It left a lasting impression.

"Whereever you are and whoever you are today, you are standing on the backs of the ancestors buried in cemeteries like this one," she says. "They created you... the way they raised you, developed your personality and made you what you are. When you have a child, you pass that on down to your descendants. That's what makes this ground reverent.. these people had personalities and traits that their descendants now share."

"When Jewish people were held in captivity, pagan kings gave passage for them to be buried back in their homelands," Mrs. Alexander says. "They even provided money for transporting the remains.. this is documented in history. Even money for the gates that protected the final rest places."

 Today, we have living proof of how cemeteries need to be regarded, especially African-American cemeteries."

"For the ground at West Lawn is hallowed."


2014 Langston West View Cemetery & Hankal Bldg - Video Maker

2014 Langston Alumni Tour the McKinney Center: From the Old to the New


"It was important to save this building for the sake of the younger people, so that our heritage won't die."

That was the sentiment among the Langston High School alumni, who visited the former Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Jonesborough, Tennessee during an alumni reunion tour on Saturday, July 5, 2014.

Originally opened as an African-American school in 1939, the renovated building how houses the McKinney Cultural Center, dedicated to providing affordable arts education to the people of Jonesborough and Washington County.

The school closed in 1965, when integration required its African-American children to be assimilated into the surrounding white schools in Washington County. Many thought its history would die, when the doors closed for the final time.

But those memories live on.

For just a minute, let's go back to the days of the Booker T. Washington School. Back in the 1940's. Grades 1 through 9. Days when grade school students like Mary Catherine (Rhea) Williams went to class through the halls and auditorium of the school.

"Just being in here, brings back so many memories," she says. "I was in so many plays on this stage. In one of them, I was a daffodil.. I had my little flower hat, and my little face with petals. There were so many people in the audience, parents, neighbors, teachers."

The only thing she remembers fully, is how she felt on that stage that night.

"Scared to death," she laughed. "Really afraid when I first started. I was glad when it was over."

More experience gave her and her fellow students confidence in standing in front of audiences.

"We had more plays every year after that before the school closed," she said. "I remember a boy by the name of William Edwards.. he sung 'You'll Never Walk Alone' from this stage. He sang that song and it has stuck in my mind all these years. I can see him standing there."

"I think he's left us now."

Other memories came flooding back for the former student, whose aunt and uncle both served as principals at Booker T. Washington Elementary.

"This auditorium was also the gym where the basketball games were played," she remembers. "For auditorium things, Miss Brown would be down there banging on the piano. They also used to have dances in here.. my daddy used to call the square dances in here. Just like many black schools, this was the center of the community's activities. I used to walk to this school from Depot Street. For a little child, it was a long way, even on a good day. When it was raining, Mama would call a cab to bring us.. some of the kids did not have that luxury."

Mrs. Williams served on the committee that restored the building, saving it from a certain future with the wrecking ball.

""It was important to save this building for the sake of the younger people," she says. "They can look at this building now and say, 'my grandmother, my family all went there. We're losing that heritage, and if the young people don't pick it up, it'll be lost forever. A lot of them don't want to hear it.. you start talking about it and they don't want to here about it..'oh that was a long time ago.' But it really is a part of their history, the most important part because this was a school."

"It's part of THEM."

The renovation was completed in November of 2013, and that month the building reopened as the McKinney Cultural Center. It was named after the McKinney family, of whom Ernest McKinney served as principal. When the Langston alumni toured the building, the auditorium was filled with artwork and crafts from local artists and scultors.

"This building deserves special recognition," says center director Theresa Hammons. "People who went to this school have an unbreakable tie to this building. There's an attachment to it that is unmistakeble. We want to honor that connection. It's important to keep that connection alive so that people keep their investment. A successful place needs to be kept successful. It helps in our quality of life and our economic environment.

"Renovated buildings are a great model for that."

Graduates of Booker T. Washington like Mrs. Williams, eventually attended Lanston High School in Johnson City. "We thought we were grown," she remembers, "because we were going to LANGSTON. black kids from Limsestone, Washington College and Telford who went here, all eventually went to the big high school in Johnson City. We thought we were somebody special. The bus would pick up the black kids first, sometimes around 6 AM, and then go pick up the white kids. In the afternoon, the white kids were picked up first and then the black kids.. some of them didn't get home until around 6."

"I really had respect for those kids."

Center Director Hammons has worked in museum settings the past 20 years. "The concept for the renovation of the Washington School is a culmination of the original educational purpose for the building.. preserving that history through the idea of a museum," she says.

Next year, the Booker T. Washington School building will be 75 years ago. There are big plans for that celebration.

"In October of next year, we'll be working with the Washington alumni on a big reunion," Hammons says. "Meetings are being held right now in the planning stages for that commemoration. Also next year, we're planning an event we're calling 'Mrs. Brown's End of the Year Program,' in honor of Mrs. Brown that Mrs. Williams was telling you about. Many of the alumn i collected their stories of when they were here, and they're planning a performance of poetry they read, songs they sang and dances they did when they were in school."

"We want to make sure our doors are always open to alumni and the people of Jonesborough, who approved the renovation here," she says.

Mrs. Williams is hoping that idea spreads over to Johnson City, and the Langston School building standing empty, except for being a storage facility for the city.
"We were thrilled when we received the grant to save the Booker T. Washington School building," she says. "Much like Langston, it was just a storage building.. falling in from neglect. I'm hoping that we'll be able to save Langston, too. Look at what they did in Kingsport and Bristol and Rogersville and the other cities with black schools. It can be done, but not without a lot of 'greenbacks' and interest from the community."

"It'll take a lot of effort, but just like here at Booker T. Washington... it will be worth it."


At ETSU, Langston Alumni Find Their Place in Collegiate History


In the mid 50's, four graduates of Langston High School made the fateful decision to continue their higher education as many of their fellow classmates did. They decided to follow in the footsteps of one of the Langston teachers, Eugene Caruthers.

Tbese intrepid four could have easily chose traditionally black colleges like Howard University in Washington, DC, Tennessee A & I State in Nashville, or Morehouse or Spellman in Atlanta.

Instead, they chose, as Caruthers did, to attend East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, their hometown. The problem was, before Caruthers, African-Americans had never attended ETSU before. There was no law that said they couldn't.. it's just that nobody did it.

Change was coming, after Elizabeth Watkins, Clarence McKinney, George Nichols and Luellen Owens stepped onto the campus, on a cold January day in 1956.

Langston alumni on a tour of ETSU during their 2014 school reunion, found a newly-placed marker from the Tennessee Historical Commission, displayed prominently on the grounds of the university library.

"Breaking the color barrier at ETSU was not something that any of us expected to do," says Nichols, who joined his fellow Langston alumni to view the new historical marker. "We only wanted to get a higher education."

Nichols says, they were not concentrated on making history.
"It wasn't a stand we were taking," he says. "It was nothing like what happened at other schools in the South, or what would eventually happen in Alabama and Mississippi. We didn't think of it in terms of making history. Look at what was happening during the time.. this was the year after the high school was blown up in Clinton, Tennessee.. It was the time before UT had its first black athlete. This was before Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama.. before the killings at the University of Mississippi. Our integration of ETSU occurred before any of the integrations at any of the colleges and universities in the South. Again.. we just wanted an education, and we wanted to get it at home."

Unlike the other schools, there were no mass protests when the group integrated ETSU. Nobody standing in the doorway to block their entrance.. no riots, no marches, and no lives were lost. Nichols says, he knows why.

"I think the reason there were no incidents at ETSU, is because the university did not notify the news media," he remembers. "There were no TV cameras, no reporters, no lights, no national press, no stories in the papers. Nobody knew we were doing it, and it was done before anybody was aware of what had happened."

"I think that's why it was so peaceful."


Nichols says, he and his fellow classmates were part of history, but he downplays the fact that they changed it.

"I can only speak for myself, but as Luellen (Owens, his classmate) recalls, 'we didn't have sense enough to be scared' at the time. Each of us had different experiences. Since I'm an introvert, my experience was that I felt alone. Initially, in ROTC class, I could remember the names of all of my military classmates' names. But in all of the other classes I had at ETSU during those four years, I could only remember the names of two classmates. I felt by myself most of the time."

The decisions and actions made by the ETSU Five were indeed heroic and groundbreaking for the time.

Nichols says, the message for young people years later, is a simple one.

"Stand on our shoulders," he says. "Keep carrying on the impact of what we did. If we could do what we did, they can do something just as significant, or even bigger."

"Keep going.. the door has been open for years."

"Don't let the impact die."

Saving the Langston School Building: A Great Investment


"If other communities can save their black school buildings, why can't we?"

That's the consensus of Langston alumni, attending the 2014 Reunion in Johnson City on the 4th of July weekend.

The old Langston building downtown has stood empty since the school closed in 1965. Still owned by the city, it has served as a storage facility for municipal property the past 50 years.

" We'd like to have it back to where you could walk up the steps and go into the rooms and the gym," says Langston Alumni Group president Barbara (Bobbie) Watterson. "The floors are still beautiful, even the gym floor still has the red marks around it for basketball, just like it was back then."

"We'd like to see that gym turned into a community room, for gatherings and parties."

Talk of saving the old Langston School building began circulating through little groups at the reunion.. seems everybody was talking about it.

"We're working on approaching the city with a proposal to renovate the school building into a community activity center," Watterson says. "We won't ask anything until we have something concrete to propose. We're looking at a revenue stream.. what money could come from renting out the building, so that the city can get back the money spent for renovation."

She says the proposal already has support at least, from many in the Johnson City's African-American community.

"We've got 44 black businesses in town, and we've talked to some of them who have given commitments to put their activities in the building, once it's renovated."
"If other cities can do this with their old school buildings, why can't we?" she wondered out loud. "We don't want to see it torn down. Look at Rogersville, what they did at the Price Public School.. look at Kingsport and Douglass, look at Elizabethton, Gtreeneville,even Big Stone Gap, Virginia where the city hall is in the old black school. Look at both Bristols. Everybody that renovated their old black school buildings, now have showplaces in their communities. The people were able to show where the city could make money on renovating the buildings, and that's what counts nowadays."

A sense of optimism also settled on the talk of renovating the Langston building, tempered with a bit of reality. "We just want to have our plans together first. As a community, we've only had a couple of meetings, but we are planning others. Once we get everything in order, we'll go to the city with a proposal. It helps that we are working with the Langston Heritage Group, because they have a non-profit 501(c)3 designation. They have been working with the city on various projects, and we're hoping they can help with this one."

"The city has used it as a storage building, and it's a better building than that," she says. "Our school history is in that building, and the heritage of Johnson City and the African-American influence on the city, comes from that building."

"We want our building back," Watterson thought out loud, pausing for emphasis.

"We... want... our... building... back."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Langston Alumni Find Special Recognition at Veterans Park


For Army veteran Will Rhea of Johnson City, finding his name on a granite monument, was a humbling experience.

The fact that the granite marker could have easily have been a cemetery marker, is not lost on this 30-year ex-soldier.

"You look and see, not only my name, but the names of other people that you know," he says. "You think back and you say to yourself 'how many of these people were not as blessed to come back home? How many were not able to return from different combat zones they were in?
Rhea says, the efforts to build this huge memorial to veterans, covered just about every end of Washington County.. veterans from every 20th century conflict are represented.

"You look in one place and there's a couple of people's names on there from World War Two," Rhea noted. "They more or less set the standard for how we conduct ourselves in war. Then you had the Korean conflict and then the Vietnam conflict. They were not classified as wars, but World Wars Two and One still set the tone for the approach we took to conflicts later on."

The words "Freedom is Not Free" rest high and proud on the archway of the Johnson City-Washington County Veterans Memorial. Visitors like these from the Langston Alumni Group can see tributes to all veterans who have served honorably in the Armed Forces of the United States since World War I. The memorial was dedicated on 11-11-11 at precisely 11 A-M.

The Johnson City-Washington County Veterans' Memorial Foundation, a collection of veterans, local business, civic and government leaders established the governing board for maintaining the memorial, including the adding of additional names, when it becomes necessary.
"It takes 39 names to have a new, separate marker put up," Rhea says. "Even now, a number of Langston alumni that attended the reunion, are working right now to get the names of their loved ones who were in the military on the monuments. Family members are trying to get their relatives not on the wall listed, which means an increase in activity at the wall."

"Many of them did not know about the monument."

The Langston alumni on the tour, were awe-struck by the majestry of the monuments in the park.

"People look at the names from World War One and Two," Rhea says, "and there is a realization that these people created the steppingstones for people like me. We did have racism that was real heavy when those veterans came back home. But you look at this wall here, and everybody's name is on it. There's no segregation on it.. no 'these are black military members, these are white military members.' They were from the UNITED, States of America.

"That's what happens when you are in the military," he says. "You are a member of a group of military people. You are not separate. That's what makes it work. Unlike these congressmen that we have in Washington that are doing everything they can to divide the country, when you are in uniform, you are there in combination with everybody else. You're all UNITED in what your mission is."

Rhea says he appreciates the way the organizers designed the memorial. In addition to the names of military members who returned home, one area contains the names of veterans killed in action (KIA), missing in action (MIA) and prisoners of war (POW).

"The way it is laid out, with prisoners of war set up in one special area, the ones killed in action in another separate area, and all the other categories are set up.. it's done in a way that is easy to understand. It was well thought out. The appearance is, the memorial wasn't something that was just thrown together. The memorial is a symbol of what it takes for us to have the freedoms that we have. Many other countries don't have those same freedoms. Many of the countries these military members were in, did not have those freedoms, and the only reason we were there was because of some conflict. If people did not know what was happening in those countries, it is understandable because of the number of names on the Veterans Wall."

The granite panels also create conversation. That was evident when the Langston alumni visited. Rhea says he hopes the memorial will compel young people to research their roots.

"When they see the names of relatives they have only heard about, they think 'well, I didn't know exactly what Grandpa did in the war,' he says. "This memorial should make them go through personal items and read books on the conflict and what role their relative had in it, especially if that family member did not return home. Keep in mind.. a number of American military personnel that fought in World War Two are not buried in this country. They are buried overseas. But now, their relatives have something here that they can go and see, and the memory of that person can be honored here at home."

After he found his own name, Rhea says, he also noticed the Coleman's, both father and son.  He says the Veterans Memorial is a reverent place, but not one that provokes sadness. He says, pride is the mainstay of the memorial.

"You just get this feeling that rolls up in your stomach," he says. "You look and you say, 'I'm here, as part of Johnson City, Washington County, Tennessee USA, and I did my part.' I placed my boots, I went and did what my country asked of me. The things we did were necessary. I look at how Johnson City has grown since I first went overseas, and I realize that growth could not have happened, unless we did what we had to do."

"It means a whole lot."



2014 Langston Picnic: Shall We Gather At the Shelter?


Alumni of the former Langston High School in Johnson City, don't just have a picnic during their bi-annual reunions.

It's more like a community gathering.

The latest one was held in the shelter at the Carver Rec Center in downtown Johnson City, and included the alumni association's business meeting.

After pronouncing the association's finances in good order, and after a morning of activities, it's time to eat.

On the menu.. hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, soft drinks.

And of course, good conversation.

Just sample some of these pictures of the event!