By Jeff Keeling
When Elizabeth Watkins and George Nichols stepped onto the East Tennessee State College campus as its first African-American undergraduates in the fall of 1958, they possessed a particular advantage that would help them navigate the historic challenge.
It wasn’t privilege. Watkins’s parents had moved the family to Johnson City from South Carolina to follow the physician family for whom her father was a chauffeur and gardener and her mother a babysitter and housekeeper. Nichols’s father worked as a bellman at the John Sevier Hotel.
It wasn’t “per pupil spending” and the advantages school funding can confer in the form of equipment, facilities and books. The city’s all-black high school was typically an afterthought when it came to funding.
It wasn’t the active support of white America or its judicial system. When it came to higher education, the Civil Rights movement’s attention that fall was on Louisiana State University, where several dozen students integrated successfully following a court order. In Johnson City, college and Langston officials had met with African-American community leaders and parents to quietly prepare the quartet of Watkins, Nichols, Clarence McKinney and Mary Luellen Owens for their mission/opportunity.
As Watkins and Nichols both emphatically state, their advantage was the students’ human support system – their parents, their community and most significantly, Langston’s teachers.
“The Langston teachers went above and beyond the call of duty to develop us, even though we had hand- me-down books and things like the chemistry and biology lab were woefully, woefully underequipped,” says Nichols, a retired manager who lives near Nashville. “They made it happen. They made it so we were able to survive in this world.”
The pair discussed their time at Langston and ETSC as Johnson City leaders move toward a $4 million budget commitment that could result in the renovation and reuse of Langston’s gymnasium. If it comes, the change would occur 51 years after the last graduating class crossed the stage there and roughly 40 years after the campus transitioned from a vocational school to the city schools’ maintenance site, after which the building slowly fell into disrepair.
Nichols, who grew up on Wilson Avenue and attended Dunbar Elementary before entering Langston, says the school’s marching band director, Eugene Caruthers, also taught all science classes and had paved the way for the 1958 graduates by becoming ETSC’s first black graduate student two years before.
“He was the most amazing man I’ve ever known,” says Nichols, who played the snare drum in Langston’s marching band and earned his bachelor’s at ETSC in biology.
Crawford concurs about Caruthers – she played trombone in marching and concert bands – but, like Nichols, adds that many Langston teachers influenced her.
Road to integration
Langston would last another seven years before students from the class of 1966 transferred to Science Hill High School for their senior year, but with Caruthers having paved the way, ETSC was ready to accept its first small group of black students. Johnson City’s race relations were relatively peaceful and quiet, Crawford remembers – but segregation reigned, and separate didn’t mean equal.
In April 1954, Langston’s principal, J. Neil Armstrong, had been fired by Johnson City’s school board in a closed meeting. The only reason given by the board, according to an article about the affair in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, was Armstrong’s alleged failure, “to show leadership necessary to organize, discipline and administer” Langston. This was the same school, the article noted, that Armstrong had, during a 17-year tenure as principal, helped elevate to the only “A”-rated African-American school between Roanoke, Va. and Knoxville.
Crawford remembers a silent sit-in at the schools’ central office that involved both students and parents. “He had stood up for something, and I remember this statement that he said very well: Anything that no one else wants, the whites don’t want, they give to us.”
Several white Johnson Citians criticized the school board at its meeting following the firing, according to the Afro-American article. Moses Canter spoke of Armstrong’s great success in leading Langston and urged board members to reverse course. “You will be doing yourself a service and justice to Mr. Armstrong and the community if you will reinstate this man,” Canter was quoted as saying.
Despite the African- American community’s overwhelming desire to see Armstrong reinstated, he was replaced that summer, though he went on to work in higher education.
By 1958, Nichols and Crawford were thinking of their futures. Crawford remembers that she and the three others had been selected for their academic ability and “our ability to handle” other pressures of attending an all-white college. She says leaders at ETSC, having seen Caruthers’ success in graduate school, had a connection with Langston.
They met with him, other teachers and the Langston administration, along with the students’ parents and leaders in Johnson City’s African-American community. Crawford says by the summer of 1958, she was nervous, but not scared.
“All the churches prayed for us,” she remembers. “Our parents had not been to college. They were just average working people, working in homes, working in hotels and the things that black people were allowed to do. They knew their children needed to do more. They hoped that and they prayed that.”
Crawford’s father had to quit school after the third grade. She remembers teaching him to sign his name to checks after she learned to write in the first grade. Her mother had gone through eighth grade, but couldn’t afford the travel to a larger city to finish school. “She was the one who kept pushing and pushing, because she had wanted more education.”
Nichols – who became the first African-American second lieutenant commissioned through ETSCs ROTC program and served for seven years before entering the corporate world – says that in his family, “it was understood as far back as I can remember that I would go to college.” His mother had attended Knoxville College for a semester before running out of money. His father, also George Nichols, had been near the middle of the birth order in a family of sharecroppers with 11 children who lived around Dandridge and Morristown. He, his parents and his older siblings had worked so Nichols’s younger aunts and uncles could go to college.
Nichols was offered a small scholarship to what is now Tennessee State University, but it wasn’t enough, so he opted for ETSC.
Nichols lived at home – black students weren’t allowed to stay in the dorms or belong to any social organizations, he says – and worked in addition to attending classes. Despite the fine teachers, Langston was small and underresourced, and Nichols doesn’t remember having the opportunity to take physics or some of the higher maths.
“It was catch up and keep up at the same time, plus work, and no college social life,” he says.
The ‘two-edged’ sword of integration
Nichols enjoyed an extremely successful career after the military. He started the “alternative delivery” system at Summit Bank of New Jersey, establishing an ATM network that ran from Florida to Maine. He also oversaw the transition from tokens to swipe cards at New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which launched in 1994.
Nichols’s children and grandchildren have attended integrated schools and colleges with hardly a second thought, as have Crawford’s. Plenty of college and graduate degrees now line family shelves.
But with the closing of Langston, something valuable was lost, Nichols says.
“This is going to sound strange, but integration of schools was a two-edged sword,” he says. “The schools were separate but not equal. However, Langston had a legacy, and that legacy was destroyed. It was good in that integration increased opportunities for education.
“At the same time, the school spirit and things we had surrounding Langston just went the way of Sandusky. I don’t know how many Science Hill students would speak of their teachers the way Langston students speak of theirs.”
The school’s long-delayed renovation – even if only partial – and its return to community use could result in some of that value being recaptured, or at least physically commemorated. Crawford says she likes the idea of an educational or community use. She likens the delayed action to East Tennessee State University’s belated recognition in 2011 of the four undergrads who had broken the color barrier 53 years earlier.
“They didn’t recognize us for years, but that’s okay, because when they did they tried to make up for it, and I felt like, okay, I’ve been an influence and a leader for our people to get a better education,” Crawford says.
“I pray for young black people coming into the university, and I pray they keep doing it, because education is the way out, and diversity is the other way out, of the problems we’re still having right now.”
As for the city’s pending work at Langston, Crawford raises an eyebrow when asked her opinion. “That could be great, but are they really going to spend the money it takes to do it right?”