Story and photos by Sarah Colson
For the first time in more than 50 years, Evelyn Debro and her longtime boyfriend, Angelo Newman, Jr., enter the doors of Langston High School. Langston served as Johnson City’s all black high school until 1965 when it was integrated with nearby Science Hill.
It’s cold, dusty and a bit smaller than they remembered. Despite the abandoned feel of the place, the hallways come to life with memories as the pair walks through. Debro and Newman mention every teacher by name. They laugh as they climb the stairs to the second story, remembering that this floor was for upperclassmen only.
“Don’t get caught on the second floor as a seventh grader or they’ll beat you up!” Newman laughs.
Debro and Newman’s excitement carries them down the hall as they pause slightly at each classroom.
“That was Mrs. Horsley’s room,” Debro points out.
“That was Mrs. Redd’s room. She was my home room teacher,” Newman remembers.
While the couple’s recollections help to paint a picture of what the school once was, it is difficult to see past the broken windows, failing roof and storage boxes that now make up the majority of the property.
Joe Barnes, director of maintenance for Johnson City schools, says the 35,000-square-foot building is now used for his department’s main operations. While it includes a few offices, it is primarily used for storing materials and, on the outside, parking vehicles.
Opened in 1893, the high school is situated downtown between East Myrtle Avenue, Elm Street and East Fairview Avenue. It officially closed its doors in 1965 after court-ordered desegregation.
Johnson City Board of Education Chairwoman Kathy Hall says she would love to see the building restored to the state it deserves. The city’s two former black elementary schools, Dunbar and Douglass, have been retrofitted and serve as a church and a youth center, respectively. However, that dream of a restored Langston may have to remain on hold.
“Unfortunately, at the moment, funds we have had have needed to go into schools that have students,” Hall says.
Hall adds, however, that discussions have begun about what to do with the space should funds become available.
For Debro, it’s a bittersweet reunion with her old stomping grounds. During her time at Langston, she was a cheerleader, prom queen and drum major before graduating in a class of roughly 20 in 1962.
“It was the best time of my life,” she says. “We had one of the best marching bands in the area. Thursday nights, downtown, everybody came down to watch the parade up Market Street and down Main.” Newman smiles in agreement.
While Langston’s band and sports programs were some of the area’s best, things were separate but certainly not equal when it came to resources. Because of a lack of funding, all of the band instruments Debro’s band used were bought by her teacher. All the students studied using hand-me-down textbooks from Science Hill, most with answers already written in the back.
“I didn’t know why I went to a different school,” Debro said. “I guess for our parents, they might have been a little ashamed, but you did the best with what you had.”
Despite the secondhand materials, Debro and Newman both went on to successful careers. Debro was one of the first African-American students to attend a newly integrated nursing college. She worked as a licensed practical nurse before finishing her career in payroll with Texas Instruments and Siemens. Newman was a maintenance supervisor at Kennametal Corp.’s local manufacturing plant.
Social and historical concerns seem secondary to Debro and Newman as they walk the halls. Both agree the best part of Langston High School was the community it created.
“The whole community knew you,” Debro said. “Anything they had going on at the school, the people came whether they had children or not.”
That community not only showed respect to the school and all who attended, but they taught the students how to respect in return.
“We were taught to respect everything,” Debro said. “Respect the teachers, yourselves and the property. You wouldn’t dare tear anything up.”
Walking through the old school, however, Debro and Newman say they feel that some of that respect and care has been forgotten. It becomes obvious the building is falling apart, largely because of the leaking roof throughout the school, especially in the auditorium.
“The main problem with the building is the need to replace the roof,” Barnes says. He estimates the cost for repair for the roof would be around $200,000.
But to those like Debro and Newman, the cost would be worth it. Newman, who says he was one of the first African-Americans from this area to serve in the National Guard, graduated with the last class from Langston. From the armory to his elementary school, Dunbar, most of his childhood memories have been either transformed into something else or torn down altogether.
For Debro, it’s less sentimental and more about preserving the community and heritage that were so vital to her upbringing.
“It’s like somebody coming into the home you loved growing up and seeing it all torn up,” she said, walking out of the school.
Debro recalls how the neighborhood surrounding the school used to be a source of pride for the black community. Now, abandoned lots and unkempt houses line the streets where some of the city’s nicest houses used to stand.
“To look at the neighborhood now,” Debro trails off. “But, you know, when your school goes, your neighborhood goes with it.”
The deteriorating school has made it difficult to express the pride she once felt as one of the last classes to graduate from Langston.
“Part of your heritage has just been done away with,” Debro said. “It’s like it didn’t mean anything. You want to go back and show kids where you began. You want to be proud of it, not embarrassed by it.”
Debro and Newman hope to see the building eventually restored.
For now, they are celebrating the community that has transformed so much since Langston closed its doors and trying to honor the school’s old motto: “Enter to learn. Depart to serve.” Debro volunteers 15 hours per week at Northside Elementary. She’s been there for 11 years and spends her time with kindergarteners and working in the cafeteria. She tries to recreate that same sense of togetherness Langston maintained.
Debro and Newman remember their time at Langston and what the surrounding community meant to them and all of the African-Americans who passed through the school’s hallways. They hope others will start to remember as well.
“We were here,” Debro said. “We did things. We accomplished things.”