Sunday, March 29, 2015

East Tennessee Black Schools Closings' 50th Anniversary: And The Reunion of the Ages in August!


A few key things were happening during the Civil Rights Movement in 1965.

African-Americans marched for the right to vote.  Their hearts were in it, but their community was not.

Black met white on a four-lane bridge in Selma, Alabama, and although the blood was red that flowed that March day 50 years ago, African-Americans did get the constitutional right to vote.

Almost 450 miles to the northeast, integration meant the end of African-American schools in upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.  It meant the end of segregation, but it also spelled the end of close relationships between black teachers and black students and the relationships those schools had with each other.

It was the end of the Bland High School in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.... Douglass High School in Bristol, Virginia.... Slater High School in Bristol, Tennessee.... Douglass High School in Kingsport, Tennessee.... Langston High School and the associated elementary schools in Johnson City, Tennessee.... Douglas High School in Elizabethton, Tennessee... Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Jonesborough, Tennessee....  George Clem High School in Greeneville, Tennessee.... Swift High School in Rogersville, Tennessee.... Morristown College High School in Morristown, Tennessee.... and Tanner High School in Newport, Tennessee.

The closings ripped the heart out of the African-American communities in those cities.

The void was filled by reunions held every two years between the individual black school alumni associations.  Alumni of the schools came from miles around to get together and reminisce about "the good ole days" and catch up with each other's lives.

But there has always been one resounding message at all of the reunions.

Wouldn't it be beautiful to have one big, giant reunion between all of the former African-American high schools in Upper East Tennessee?  A chance to relive some of the old rivalries, yet celebrate the wonderful friendships and kindred spirits that hundreds of students all shared back in the day.

The summer of 2015 will be the 50th anniversary of the closing of most of the African-American schools, from Knoxville to Bristol... from Newport to Big Stone.

Efforts are now underway to plan for that huge reunion in late August.  The date has been set for SATURDAY, AUGUST 29TH, the location to be announced.
The first planning meeting between members from some of the former schools' alumni associations was very productive.  Efforts are underway to contact other associations, to also get them involved in the planning process, with the ultimate goal... TO SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT THE UPCOMING BIG REUNION IN LATE AUGUST!

"I value the future and the need for people to know where we came from," says Vivian Releford, president of the Douglass Alumni Association, Bristol, VA.  "As a people, we have lost our self-esteem.  Our kids don't know how to stand up and be proud of who they are.  We have not done a good job of teaching them to be proud of their heritage, which includes the education that their ancestors received."

"That's why this big reunion is so important."

"Coming back together to share memories of what we went through back then, is a wonderful idea," said Sue Greenlee Gilispie of the Booker T. Washington Elementary School Alumni Association in Jonesborough.  "All of our teachers at the schools had cherished personal relationships with their students... we all shared that.  This reunion will reinforce that training with the alumni that are left, plus shed some light on what our young people need, as they prepare their own histories."

"I was in the last class at Slater," remembered Lawrence Bell, Jr., president of the Slater High School Alumni Association in Bristol, VA.  "We love our reunions, and we also love the friendships that we forged with other schools through athletic and academic competitions.  The social interaction was undeniably strong.  Integration was great....I don't want to go back.  At the same time, it was hurtful in a lot of ways.  This big reunion is a good thing, to reminisce and fellowship with people we all have something in common with.  It will show our communities that we survived.... we endured.... we perserved.... WE MADE IT WORK."

"We all have a story," relayed Mary Alexander with the Langston Heritage Group of Johnson City.  "Our stories are all interwoven with each other.  Through this big reunion, we need to let people know that our stories are important to our communities.  If we don't tell those stories, they die with us.  When we get together for this reunion, those stories live on.... when we tell those stories to our young people, they will know how special our histories are... how they are part of those histories."

"I see a Tri-State history," she went on.  "It just blows my mind, the potential of a reunion like this.  I think this is so exciting.  We've got something to show off.  It's our histories, our collective histories.  Everybody needs to be a part of this.  I just can't wait.  I love it, LOVE IT.  We are important!  We matter.  OUR HISTORIES MATTER!"

"My grandson came in the other day," remembers Brenda Akins Charles, also with the Langston Heritage Group, "and he says 'Me-me... did you have white friends back then?'  I said, 'of course, I had white friends.  I guess he was expecting me to say 'no.'  This is why the idea of a big reunion is important.  What must other young people think about our history?  This is a chance to show the young people what we did, how we did it, and why it's important to them."

"50 years is an anniversary worth celebrating," said Doug Releford, president of the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association in Kingsport.  "Our numbers are dropping fast.  Our past is going away just as fast.  If 50 years of celebrating voting rights is important down in Selma, Alabama for the country, remembering our black schools that closed 50 years ago, is also important to us here in our corner of the world."

"My dream has always been to have a big reunion like this," says Barbara Love-Watterson with Langston.  "Doug Releford can back me up on this.. we tried to get the idea of a big reunion going, but it never got off the ground.  Then I spoke to Calvin and he got excited, which made me excited about it again.  Our children have lost their heritage.. they don't know who they are or where they came from, they don't know their backgrounds.  Nobody teaches the importance of family histories in school, so we have to do that job ourselves."

"This big reunion is the first step in doing that."

Jeanette Clark from the Douglas Alumni Association in Elizabethton sees the Big Reunion as bringing together old friends and reinforcing the black communities the alumni all represent.  "By discussing and remembering what our heritages are about, it's a reaffirmation of our values.  Although we have our individual reunions, our children don't seem interested.  It'd be hard to ignore a reunion of this magnitude."

"This reunion takes us to the next level," she says.  "It re-ignites the soul.. it fires us up.  The communities we live in, will see how important this is to us, and they will want to take part.  Our young people will want to join in, because they'll see how important it is to us.  The extra items is, they will see how important it is to THEM.  There's no way to ignore it."

"This big reunion is necessary," the group collectively agreed.

The group went ahead and set a date for the gathering.  It will be Saturday, August 29th, with an alternate date of Saturday, September 12th.  The thought, group members decided, would be a central location easy for people to get to, that has adequate overnight lodging if folks need that.  Specific events that day, will also be decided later, with the thoughts ranging from active displays from each school of academic competitions, to notable speakers from the era.

Discussed locations include places that both allow liquor and those that do not.  They include the banquet room at the United Methodist Church in Blountville, the assembly area at Northeast State, Meadowview Conference Center in Kingsport, the Doubletree Hotel in Johnson City, Freedom Hall and the Millineum Center both in Johnson City.  Ms. Clark pointed out that the event is about unity, not about where it is.. that "we're coming together as a people to fellowship, to reunion and to celebrate our previous pasts.  The Big Reunion itself is the motivating factor for attending, not where it's being held.   Mary Alexander volunteered to scout out several locations and report back to the group's next meeting.

At the close of this first meeting, Calvin Sneed of the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association, Kingsport, reminded the group of its charge.... to take the enthusiasm from the group and spread it among their various alumni association members to get people to attend, and to also contact and encourage the boards of other black school alumni associations to attend the Reunion organizational meetings, so that everybody will have a voice.  Sneed said the focus of the group is "not what we cannot do, but what we CAN do.  Any suggestion is workable and everybody's ideas count."



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Special Honor for the Former Swift High School and College

The former Swift High School and College, Rogersville, TN is being honored in a special way.

Please click here to read about the honor for our neighbors and friends in Rogersville!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy Birthday!

The Douglass website published its very first post on December 29, 2006.

That means, today, the Tri-Cities' African-American community's information source is now officially 8 years old.

Considering the modern-day internet (the one we all use today), is only 20 years old, it means we have been around for half the life of the internet.

Not a bad recognition.

Thanks for supporting us!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

JC Schools Settle Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

This story courtesy the Kingsport Times-News

By Matthew Lane

GREENEVILLE — The Johnson City Board of Education has agreed to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by an African-American mother who claimed her son suffered from mental and emotional distress while attending class at Indian Trail Middle School.

   Danniele Madison, on behalf of her son Hilton, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville in October 2012. Among other things, the lawsuit claimed her son was routinely led to the cafeteria by a rope and tied to a desk with an extension cord.

   According to court documents, the Madison family and the board agreed to a $7,000 settlement in October, with two-thirds of the money going to the family and one-third to Madison’s attorney.

   Lee Patterson, the attorney for Johnson City Schools, said the settlement was covered by insurance and no money came from school funds.

   The settlement agreement does not constitute any admission of guilt or wrongdoing on the part of the board or the school system and the board continues to deny all allegations in the lawsuit.

   According to the lawsuit, Hilton suffered a stroke at birth resulting in his right hand and arm being unusable. The young man also has difficultly walking, has been afflicted with learning disabilities, and is prone to breathing difficulties and seizures.

   Eight years ago while enrolled in the sixth-grade special education class at Indian Trail, Danniele Madison claimed her son’s teacher routinely tied him to his desk with an electrical extension cord during the school day, and when lunchtime came, the teacher led her son to the cafeteria with a rope tied to his good arm, “much like a person would lead a goat.”

   The lawsuit claimed the teacher, who is Caucasian, did not similarly mistreat the Caucasian special education students.

   When Madison learned of these actions and called the middle school, an employee informed her the teacher only used the strap to keep Hilton from getting lost.

   The lawsuit claimed that the school sent a letter home with Hilton explaining that he had been tied to his desk for reasons Madison “would not understand.”

   After reading the letter, Madison contacted the Johnson City Police Department and the Department of Children’s Services, along with the school system’s special education director and Director of Schools Richard Bales, who reportedly told her he would “get to the bottom of it.”

   However, no school administrator ever “got back” to Madison, and eventually Hilton became a homebound student for the next two years.

   The lawsuit claims that Hilton’s teacher was allowed to retire.

   Madison claimed the actions taken against her son were deliberate and malicious, and as a result her son suffered humiliation, stress and anxiety, which aggravated his pre-existing disabilities and caused more severe medical problems.

   The lawsuit claimed Hilton was hospitalized and became comatose for three weeks, and upon returning home actually died for a brief period of time before EMS revived him through CPR.

   Hilton had to undergo five surgeries at the Fort Sanders Children’s Hospital in Knoxville and underwent therapy to alleviate the stress and anxiety caused by the school system’s race discrimination, the lawsuit states.

   The lawsuit did not specify an amount of damages, but asked for compensatory damages for the mental and physical distress caused to Hilton.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 Umoja Festival: "Uniting" Upper East Tennessee's Communities



In Swahili, it means "unity."

On the weekend of August 8th and 9th, the 2014 Umoja Festival "united" hundreds of people along the streets of downtown Johnson City.

It's the 18th weekend of people learning African-American culture, and the diversity of East Tennessee diversity. The festival encompasses most of downtown, and gave visitors a chance to experience the social forms, beliefs and excitements of other ways of life. Umoja brings those experiences to people in upper East Tennessee.

Its beginnings were a lot more modest.

"It all began one weekend 18 years ago at the Carver Recreation Center," says Umoja Festival chairman Ralph Davis. "We had just finished a clean-up of the black community.. some of us were members of the local NAACP and the Concerned Citizens Group, and we were trying to save the center itself. At the end of the weekends, we would have a picnic there on the grounds, mostly just fun and games.. It was always a good time, and folks in the community would come in or stop by, to meet up with friends and a good time."

Davis says, the get-togethers went on for two or three years.

"We decided to expand it a bit and have some music, because more of the community were wanting to get involved," he says. "We noticed all the festivals around on the East Coast and around, and we decided to try and have a full-blown event here ourselves.. just a neighborhood gathering, so we started one down at Carver."

Unlike other Umoja festivals around the country, Johnson City's celebration of African cultural arts has always been held on the second weekend of August, as close to August 8th as possible.

"That's the date of the Emancipation Proclamation in the state of Tennessee," says Davis. "We knew the Greeneville community celebrated freedom for the slaves in the state on that day, and we wanted to commemorate that date, too here in Johnson City. The festival just kept growing and growing, and it was beginning to outgrow the Carver Rec Center."


A huge flood along a branch of Brush Creek that flows alongside West Market Street in Johnson City, soon put an end to festivals at Carver Rec.

"Folks kept saying 'why don't you have it at Freedom Hall (Civic Center)," Davis remembers. "That did seem to be a better place for us, so we started holding the festival there. Still, it just kept getting bigger and bigger. All of a sudden, folks started asking 'well, why don't you just move downtown where all the other festivals are held?' We approached the city, and the rest is, as they say, history."

This year, the Umoja Festival is celebrating its 5th year downtown of celebrating cultural arts.

"I would say we're probably more music and crafts-oriented, for the most part," says Davis. "We try to have every thing from bluegrass to rap.. we cover the genre. Only a few years ago, did we try to appeal to different crowds who attend the festival, and we did that by having an adult main stage, and a young adult stage. That way, we could have crossover between the generations."

Between the stages, visitors were able to stop many booths along Market, Main, and Roan Streets.  Most of them were food vendors, featuring everything from barbeque pork ribs, the always-popular whiting fish, tacos and brats, to funnel cakes, pastries and other carnival-type foods.  Soft drinks, including water, tea and lemonade were also in high demand, because of the rising heat of the day.

A special event of the festival was a storytelling booth.  Tucked in one of the several alcoves between streets in downtown Johnson City, was the Majestic Park Gazebo, where storytellers held the crowds spellbound with tales of interest, some of them made up, others taken from real life.  The storytelling booth was sponsored by East Tennessee State University, in conjunction with its ETSU Storytelling Program.  According to the school website, potential students who pursue the school's Master of Arts degree in storytelling,  may "concentrate on performance skills for the sake of their present or intended professional storytelling career, or they may focus on aspects of applied storytelling, to enhance their roles as teachers, ministers, counselors, community workers, corporate trainers, healers, parents, grandparents, or any combination thereof."

"The addition of the storytelling booth is unique to our festival," says Davis.  "The ETSU storytelling area adds a dimension nobody else has.  The school builds its program around our festival, and they bring in national storytellers that we would never see, unless we go over to Jonesborough during the National Storytelling Festival they have every year."

Friday's activities featured the traditional "Call of the Drums," and a 5-K run.  Other than the parade, Saturday's event were geared mostly towards music, and of course, the food  (EDITOR'S NOTE:  SEE THE OTHER ARTICLES BELOW FOR ACTIVITIES AT THE MAIN STAGE AND THE YOUNG ADULT STAGE).

As the Umoja Festival grows in size every year, Davis says plans for the future are clear.  The event has grown into a full-blown festival.

"We are slowly getting to our goal of being multi-cultural," he says.  "There are still have some things to improve on.  We would love to have more Hispanic participation and we could really use some Asian participation.  We actually have those in spurts from year to year, but we always strive to do more in those areas."

"I would also like to see our attendance double in the crowd participation in the next few years," says Davis.  "We always try to get entertainment, booths, and participants that we know everybody will like, especially family-oriented activities.  Blending everything together is what helps us grow even further."

"It just all works together."


The 2014 Umoja Parade: Marching to Many Different Drums


The Umoja events on Saturday always begin with a parade on Saturday morning.

The 2014 celebration was no different.

The parade began as it always does at the festival's beginnings, the Carver Recreation Center. As the various vehicles lined up, there was a fun, festive atmosphere. Many participants had not seen each other since the last parade.

Participants in the parade included the Shriners led off the group, then cars loaded with dignitaries made their way on Main Street back towards downtown Johnson City and the main Umoja stage at Fountain Square.


All along the way, folks lined up to wave and grab candy thrown from some of the parade participants, sort of like the area Christmas parades. Except in this case, Santa had a distinct tan. And there were many of them. Not just one.

The elite of Johnson City's African-American community was on display during the Umoja parade. Rain the previous day, lowered the morning temperature, resulting in a huge turnout of people lining the street.

Waves were as prominent as the smiles, and each corner was packed with people.

The highlight of the parade was the African Stilt Walkers, put on my the Kuumba Waoto group from Knoxville. They dazzled the crowd simply by maintaining their balance while parading down the street.


These high walkers and accompanying drummers had earlier attended the Kuumba Kamp, which includes, according to the group's website, "intensive workshops that focus on the development of performance skills, knowledge of African and African American culture, self discipline, proper nutrition and individual goal setting that are reinforced during the camp. (The) purpose is to provide a supportive environment that facilitates the development of the individual physically and emotionally."

"Kuumba Waoto" means 'creative children' in Ki-Swahili.

The stilt walkers and drummers are sponsored by African American Appalachian Arts, Inc., Kuumba Watoto Urban Youth Institute (KWUYI) of Knoxville.

Obayna Ajanaleu was once one of the young ones, learning the art of African drumming.

He now leads the group.


The high walkers in native African dress were a crowd favorite, taking the crowd back to African times of celebration.

At the end of the parade, the crowd was treated to a native African drum chant, which drew the parade crowd into a circle around the activity. The audience were mesmerized by the artistic dancing and drumming, especially the children. Squeals of delight were heard from the younger kids, while their parents just watched in amazement.


The annual parade is sponsored by the Umoja Arts and Cultural, Inc.

The 2014 Umoja Festival: The Young Adult Stage Events


The Young Adult stage is a relative newcomer to the Umoja festival scene in Johnson City.

It's only been around just 4 short years, but it has already established itself as a "happening" place, where young people can hang out, be themselves, and be one with their types of music.

For the younger crowd, a full musical stage was set up on Market Street right beside the Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church, near the intersection with North Roan Street.

"After the Umoja Festival moved downtown from Carver Rec and Freedom Hall, we were talking about how good it was to get people together," says Young Adult stage coordinator Vicki Briscoe, "but then we thought 'what about the youth? We need something for the youth. They need their space, their area.. something that interests them. So then, we got to thinking 'well, what do the youth like?"

"We came up with this stage," she says, "that was set aside for the youth to come and express themselves, and have clean, wholesome activities just for them. Umoja has areas for people of all ages really, but this area is for the young people to come and sing and perform if they want to. We've had poetry there, we had the dance things, we had DJ Sterl the Pearl there, so the young people could have something they could call their very own."

Briscoe says she remembers well, the first year of the Young Adult stage.

"We were standing there, myself and one of the other workers," she says. "One of the young adult teenagers came up to me and hugged me, I didn't know him. He came up to me and hugged me and he's like 'thank you for this. Really, it touched me.. it really did. I made me feel like I, as well as my co-workers were making a difference, that we're touching someone's life."


She also remembers a touching moment in this year's Rap Battle held on the stage.

"The Rap Battle is the contest where anybody from the audience can get on stage and just rap to the crowd," Briscoe says. "They don't get to practice it, it's live, spontaneous, right off the top of their heads. I was listening to one particular child and what he was saying. I could immediately tell from what he was rapping about, that he was coping with something.. something in his heart, and it wasn't good. I could tell from what he was saying that there's a problem in his life.. there's a situation that's painful. It shocked me because from what he was rapping about, I could just tell that he was hurting inside from something at home and he was putting it out, you know. He was talking about something wrong at home and this was his way of coping with it, putting it in a poetic way. It touched me deeply. What I heard him rapping about, was really sad. I'm like, 'this child is hurting, and in his own way, he's dealing with it through rapping."

"By voicing it, that may have saved him from doing something about it that is bad. Maybe somebody out there heard it and could help him with it."

"It brought tears to my eyes."

By far, the one surprise every year is the Gospel Fest, held on the Young Adult stage every year. Surprising, because it's growing rapidly every year.  This is also the 4th year for the collection of inspirational singing individuals and groups.

"Kelly Coley managed the Gospel Fest this year," says Brisco. "He brought in people and groups from all over the area. We did advertise it a lot more this year and it paid off. We've had Gospel Fest as long as we've had the Young Adult stage, and it is something that I insist upon. As long as I have anything to do with the Young Adult stage, we will have gospel. We scheduled it early, starting it around 1 o'clock on Saturday, because not a lot of kids are out then. That's just me though.. I know we're catering to the younger people, but I feel like God needs to be in this, you know.. we have to bring Him in. There are kids who participate in that."

"As long as I have something to do with that Young Adult stage, there will be a Gospel Fest."



One of the Gospel performers this year was D-Higgz from Knoxville, a third-year veteran of Umoja's Gospel Fest. He's a Christian rap artist, and his real name is Darren Higgins.

"I love this kind of festival," he says. "This kind of environment is great, because it is out in the open. Everybody can hear it, the focus is right up front. People bring different elements to an outdoor gospel rap concert. A lot of my venues are Christian audiences, and if I can get out there and bring their attention in, this is where the real ministry happens. It's where the people are. That's important in getting the message of Christ out there."

D-Higgz says, he can tell if that message is reaching a receptive audience when he performs.


"Sometimes, it's a hit-and-miss," he says. "You can see some people getting the Word in the back and then on up towards the front. I try not to focus too much on the crowd. Once I get started, I'm into the music and the message. That's what I'm all about. The message could be moving through the crowd and I not even know it."

"My prayer is that there is just liberation in the Spirit of God. It doesn't matter what I rap or what I sing, as long as the Spirit comes through. It's just that freedom. That's really my goal."

Later, the young adult crowd was dazzled by dances from the African Dolls. They're a group of young ladies based in Johnson City, from several different area churches.

"What they brought to the table," says Vicki Briscoe, "was a little R-and-B and some Liberian African dances. That's the first time we have had that type of dance, and this was their first performance ever."

"They're a new, up-and-coming dance group, and we were glad to have them. The crowd loved them."


The Shaka Zulu Stilt Walkers paid a visit, and once again the crowd, especially the young people were mesmerized by the delicate balancing act of the dancers. Hovering several feet above the ground, many folks marveled at the way the dancers maintained their balance, including when the walkers incorporated dance steps in their stilt routines.


On both Friday and Saturday nights' DJ "Sterl the Pearl" entertained the crowd with a great selection of music. He is based in Knoxville, and has spent many years in radio, television and the world of entertainment.

"Sterl the Pearl is a great asset to the Umoja Festival," Brisco says. "He's been with us since Day One of the Young Adult stage. He relates to the young people and he really looks out for them. One of our requirements is that we only play 'clean' rap songs.. you're not going to hear the dirty versions. We are a family festival, family-oriented. Sterl has held true to that.. keeping it clean. Some kids have come up and requested the dirty versions of a rap song, and he's like 'I can't do that, you know.. I can't do that, this is a family vestival. No matter -- the kids that asked for the dirty stuff stay anyway and danced and had a good time.

"Sterl the Pearl's" real name should ring a bell for UT football fans.

Sterling Henton is a former UT quarterback, playing in four bowl games and winning back-to-back SEC football championships. He continued his sports career in professional football for four seasons. Henton, a.k.a. "Sterl the Pearl" has an MBA from the University of Tennessee, was once the Vice President of Marketing for Warner Brothers in the Southeast Region, and, in addition to DJ'ing on the side, is a local senior business analyst in Knoxville.

The future of the Young Adult stage is as bright as the smiles on the faces of the young people who claim it as their own.

"I would really like for more young people to be on the Young Adult committee," says Brisco. "We need their input on who to invite and who to consider. The first two years, we had bands from Nashville, Knoxville, a reggae band from North Carolina. We're a non-profit organization, and we would also like to get more sponsors so we can bring in bigger names, bigger acts, bigger name bands that you hear on the radio and the TV."


"Support from the community is important, and we always value new input."