By Jeff Keeling
The former home of all-black Langston High School (LHS) is getting a hard look from city leaders as to its potential for renovation and some type of broad community use. The school system’s maintenance center since 1974, Langston has fallen into significant disrepair. A study released in January by Shaw and Shanks Architects details the condition and renovation possibilities of the campus bounded by Elm, Fairview and Myrtle streets. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but does indicate a good potential for restoring the gymnasium, and possibly a 60-year-old classroom wing. City leaders, who appear inclined to invest in some type of renovation, have met with the Langston High School Interest Group since January to discuss the issue. LHS group members begin a series of community meetings April 2 to get input from the city’s African-American community. That community includes many people who attended Langston before its 1965 closure and were imbued with its motto: Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve. Time’s passing has not dimmed their ardor for Langston and all it means.
When he proudly crossed the stage at Langston High School in 1965, Mike Young, by virtue of his last name, became the final student to be handed a diploma from the 73-year-old segregated institution. Like his older cousin, 1949 graduate Barbara Love-Watterson (nee Young), Young has retained a love for the school through the intervening decades.
And like Love-Watterson and many other alumni, Young has watched with sadness as the years have rolled by and the school has fallen into further disrepair. The Bristol resident helps lead the LHS Interest Group, which has a public meeting at 10 a.m. April 2 at Carver Recreation Center. He says the current spark of interest may be the last best chance for a renovated Langston the community can use and in which it can take pride.
“It doesn’t have to be a fancy building,” Young says, “but this is going to be our last chance, possibly, to do something. Will we get all our wishes? I don’t know. Will we get some of them? I don’t know. But we have to try.”
Love-Watterson, his cousin and one of the primary architects of a biannual all-school reunion that began in 1976, agrees. She is cautiously optimistic about the future of a school she said was left “in pristine condition” in 1965 and has seen consideration of roof replacement passed over for other priorities through the years. “It’s not our fault the building’s in deplorable condition,” Love-Watterson adds.
Desegregation – when it finally came in 1965 – was a welcome and long-awaited change in Johnson City’s African-American community. “I thought it was a wonderful thing, because I knew our kids would have a better chance,” says Love-Watterson, whose seven children all attended Science Hill High School.
The words “separate but equal” had for decades carried more than a hint of irony at LHS. Students endured second-hand textbooks, unfunded music programs and a host of other material inadequacies that excellent faculty could only partially remedy.
“We had the best teachers, who cared about us and worked with us with what they had to work with,” Love-Watterson says.
Neither of these facts, though, has tainted the fierce love and devotion many Langston graduates feel toward their alma mater. The school was a source of community pride. It helped prepare many a young man and woman for the new opportunities the Civil Rights era and subsequent decades provided to African-Americans.
Love-Watterson quickly recalls the good times and hard work that marked her years at Langston, when J. Neil Armstrong was principal and she was a drum major in the band, like her two sisters, Hazel and Emma, had been before her.
The Langston Band was a community icon remembers Young. “Every Thursday (Langston played its football games on Science Hill’s field the night before the Hilltoppers) the band would march over to Roan and Myrtle, then down Roan Street to Market, up Market to Buffalo, over to Main and back up toward the stadium,” Young says. “All the downtown businesses would stay open late to watch them go by.”
Eugenie Grimes, librarian and Latin instructor, is the source of another memory for Love-Watterson.
“If you were in 11th grade, on the last Friday of school you stood up on stage with Ms. Grimes and sang Adeste Fideles – Oh Come All Ye Faithful in Latin. I still know the song.”
But where the former African-American high schools in Kingsport (Douglass) and Bristol (Slater) found new life almost immediately after desegregation and remain vital parts of those cities’ community life today, Langston languished. It served as a citywide vocational school until 1974 before transitioning to its current function, which hasn’t required keeping a former school building in tip-top shape.
The Shaw and Shanks report details the challenges on the 1.8-acre campus that includes 44,707 square feet of enclosed space. The two-story original school, constructed in 1893, is gone. Of the 1925 additions, the gym wing is in far better shape than the cafeteria/auditorium wing. A failing roof and intermediate floor system, lack of heat and plumbing, and asbestos-containing pipe insulation are a few of the problems in the latter.
A 1957 administration/classroom wing contains asbestos, has a failing roof system and has a second floor considered unsafe due to friable (easily crumbled) asbestos.
The report does note the possibility of “various combinations of demolition/renovation/new construction on current site.”
The school system has begun looking at potential sites for its maintenance facility. That approach aligns with what appears to be a desire by elected city leaders to preserve the campus in some form, with a community function. City Commissioner Jenny Brock says the fiscal 2017 capital budget plans tentatively include funds for demolition and renovation, which should include beautification of the campus and at least renovation of the gym wing.
Initial discussions are pointing toward possibly relocating the Princeton Arts Center functions, under the auspices of Parks and Recreation, to the building.
“They want to make sure there is recognition of what happened at that site, and that our children can continue to learn from it,” Brock says. “We’ve made a commitment that we’re going to do something to the gymnasium to restore it. If we can help bring a new purpose for it that connects history with the future, and brings together all the youth of our community it can have more impact than just fixing a building.”
While she says an arts-related purpose, “sounds wonderful,” Love-Watterson adds the LHS Interest Group, “has a lot of things in mind we think could go into the building.” Like her colleagues, she would love to see maximum restoration, and certainly some section that displays historic memorabilia from the school’s active years. Mike Young, for his part, hopes the city will take care of the entire 1.8 acres, including outdoor space. “It’s a campus,” he says.
Brock says any investment at LHS still has to pass the review process, but adds, “I’m optimistic, and I’m certainly supportive that we attend to this.”
As chair of the 2016 reunion, Love-Watterson says she would be thrilled to be celebrating good news with alumni when they gather over the July 4 weekend.
“We are dedicated to that school,” Love-Watterson says. “That’s all we really have that belonged to us, so of course we’re close to Langston. It’s part of our culture and part of our history, and part of the city’s history.”