Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
The seemingly sturdy brick edifice of Langston High School cast a shadow on the sidewalk of Myrtle Avenue as several dozen graduates gathered outside the building Saturday morning.
Standing near the bottom of the steps that had led to the school’s entrance, fellow 1963 graduates Diane Wilson Stevenson and Sandra “Sissy” Cole laughed as they remembered their trepidation as they first climbed those steps in the fall of 1957 as seventh graders.
“We were excited, and we were scared,” Stevenson said.
“It felt like we were going into this giant place and they were going to eat us up,” Cole remembered with a hearty laugh. (Cole and Stevenson did just fine.)
It was a bittersweet return for the graduates of Johnson City’s former all-black high school, who gather every other year to reconnect, share memories of a school they universally credit for molding them, and remember those who have died in the intervening two years. The school closed after the 1964-65 school year, so the shrinking number of living graduates isn’t replenished.
The group doesn’t normally visit the school site, but this year is different for a reason. While the school bounded by Myrtle and Fairview avenues and Elm Street may look sturdy from the outside, it’s in terrible shape inside. Years of benign neglect while it served as the school system’s maintenance center have taken their toll. Periodic pleas for roof repairs and other work that would have kept the school in better shape were heard, but other needs always seemed to take priority.
Within the past year, though, the City of Johnson City commissioned a study of the building by Shaw and Shanks Architects, and city leaders began meeting with the Langston High School Interest Group, co-chaired by Mike Young, the last graduate to walk Langston’s stage in 1965 by virtue of his last name.
The upshot of those meetings, the architects’ study and a $4.25 million budget commitment by the city is a plan to refurbish the Langston gymnasium, demolish the other buildings, and secure a new location for the schools’ maintenance facilities. With asbestos issues and considerable damage, the main classroom areas, auditorium and other sections are deemed too difficult to save. The gym refurbishment is estimated to cost about $1 million.
“I’m glad that we’re doing something,” said 1965 graduate Bobbie McAdams Douglass. “It’s long overdue. We should not have let the building get this dilapidated, first of all. And them allowing the people that worked here to work in those conditions was not good – not for them, and not for the city, and not for us, the ones that went to school here.”
Douglass shared memories of both the gym and the auditorium – one set to become a community center and monument to Langston’s influence on generations of African-American Johnson Citians, the other set to fall to the wrecking ball – as she and others lingered outside for more than an hour.
“I played basketball,” Douglass said. “All of my basketball years at Langston was fun, fun, fun. I was good, but I fouled out all the time. I was a guard. We played half court and I was guarding the forwards.”
During the senior class play, “Man Overboard,” Douglass said, one of the actors, “went to sit down in the lounge chair and the lounge chair broke. We had borrowed chairs from people. But we had such a good time – we just went on like it was part of the play. We just kept on going.”
Douglass said standing outside the school for the last time before much of it disappears felt, “heartbreaking. When the building goes – I get choked up talking about it – when we lose the building we lose a part of us. It’s like losing our home. It was like a home. We all looked after each other. The parents looked after other children, we could depend on each other for whatever.”
That interdependence was a theme as Mike Young, Vice Chair Carla Forney (another 1965 graduate) and other Langston High School Interest Group members updated the others on progress with the city.
“It is at times hard to express what you feel about Langston,” Young said. “No matter your successes, your kids’ successes, your grandchildren’s successes, it all started with you right here. They talk about how it takes a village – this was our village.”
Young laughed as he described walking in on the first day of seventh grade and encountering a Ms. Duffield (Langston was a 7-12 grade campus, accepting students from Dunbar and Douglass, the city’s two African-American elementaries).
“She said, ‘who are you?!’ I said, ‘I’m Mike Young.’ She said, ‘I know who you are! I know your daddy!’
“It didn’t matter where in town you lived,” Young said. “If you’d gotten in trouble at school that day, by the time you got home your parents knew.”
“And the teachers were part of the community,” chimed in Ezell Brady Richardson (class of 1958). Soon, other alumni began pointing in various directions where teachers lived around the predominately African-American neighborhood.
Young told those gathered the interest group is, “passionate about what we’re doing.
“What we’re trying to do is preserve the legacy of Langston. We know there’ll be bumps in the road.”
He said City Manager Pete Peterson has been a continuing ally in the efforts, and expressed hope that the group can eventually achieve its goal of seeing the entire 1.8-acre campus put to positive use in the community, with a specific focus on arts and education.
The group is batting around an acronym, LEAD, to sum up the efforts. It stands for Langston Educational, Arts and Development Center. The group is seeking donations of Langston memorabilia to place throughout the refurbished gym, which may host city-directed arts programming, though a final decision hasn’t been made.
Demolition is slated to begin later this calendar year, with refurbishment of the gym likely to begin sometime in 2017.
“We just want to preserve it, because it has such a strong meaning to a lot of us,” Douglass said before the group gathered for a photo on steps each had trod countless times as students – steps that will be gone within a year. “Whatever they’ll allow us to preserve, we want to keep it.”