By Jeff Keeling
If Villanova’s slightly outmanned basketball team showed me one thing in its national championship win Monday night, it was this: Mutual trust, brilliant execution and selfless teamwork can turn the improbable into the possible. As Johnson City elected and city leaders work with dedicated citizens seeking the preservation and renovation of Langston, the city’s former African-American high school, they will need to display much the same attributes as the Wildcats did.
Fortunately, members of the Langston High School Interest Group and their city partners have reached the equivalent of the second TV timeout – following an open forum at Carver Recreation Center Saturday – with what seems a sense of harmony and resolve. They will need to maintain those qualities as this metaphorical game plays out. I anticipate that just as the superior athleticism, three-point sharpshooting and dominant rebounding of North Carolina nearly broke underdog Villanova, at least two factors will test resolve in the Langston situation.
The first is the ravages of time. An architects’ report couldn’t be much clearer – the use of Langston as a city schools’ maintenance facility for the past 42 years has left the 1925-era cafeteria and auditorium wing, and the 1956 administration and classroom wing, in nearly irreparable condition. The 91-year-old gymnasium wing is in relatively good condition, and is the subject of the most realistic discussion surrounding renovation.
It is a shame that more of the school is unlikely to be salvageable for renovation (though time will tell). City commissioners Jenny Brock and Ralph Van Brocklin and Mayor Clayton Stout seemed well aware of that during Saturday’s forum. Some sense of contrition on their parts, even if none of the three specifically had anything to do with the building’s neglect, was a hopeful indication.
Community members, including Langston graduates from three decades (the school closed in 1965), began casting visions Saturday for what the 1.8-acre campus can become. Dreams ranging from a museum and arts center to a higher-education campus were floated in an atmosphere of openness.
Those ideas will be distilled in the coming weeks. They’ll also bump up against the other Tarheel-like test that Langston’s former Golden Tigers and their allies will face: money, or more precisely, the shortage of it.
Very preliminary estimates suggest a cost of at least $1.36 million to demolish the non-salvageable buildings and renovate the gym. Look for those figures to escalate, even prior to discussions about beautifying the campus and really putting meat on the bones of a gym renovation.
Moving Langston’s renovation onto a city funding priority list could mean delaying other worthy projects. When those cost estimates start rising and other constituencies learn they may have to wait, the city folks and Langston advocates may face the equivalent of the North Carolina pressure that erased Villanova’s 10-point second half lead in the waning minutes. But their cause is just. They will best be served by teamwork, a united front, and “high percentage shooting” (the Wildcats hit 58 percent for the game) when it comes to making precious funds go the furthest toward the goal.
Langston’s motto was “Enter to learn – Depart to serve.” In many respects, the school’s students weren’t served well by Johnson City’s dominant white community during the school’s years of operation. They received great education from top-notch teachers, but in facilities, equipment, and all-around funding, they got sloppy seconds for the most part. Add to that the rank injustice of segregated schooling, and graduates and community members have every right to harbor bitterness and resentment.
But those qualities seemed conspicuously absent Saturday. I hope the LHS Interest Group and city leaders, like Villanova’s players and coaches Monday, will continue displaying the teamwork and premier execution required to create at Langston a source of civic pride for decades to come. From what I’ve heard about the Golden Tigers’ record on the basketball court, such a result would be most fitting.