In Johnson City, efforts to save that city’s former African-American school building, Langston High School, were unsuccessful, and part of that building will now be torn down. Recently at a school reunion, several Langston alumni stopped by the landmark building to bid farewell.
“It’s just sad to see the building go,” alumnus Bobbie McAdams Douglas said softly. “It should not have been allowed to deteriorate this badly.”
Douglas reminisced with other school alumni as they walked around the doomed building at the corner of East Myrtle Avenue and Elm Street in Johnson City.
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“I remember Langston as being a family-type school with loving, caring teachers,” said fellow alum Veral Jean Neal of Johnson City, who left the school in 1959. “They cared about us not just as students, but as people. If we got into trouble at school, we were in trouble at home. That word beat us back home, and your parents knew about it the minute you walked in the door.”
About 25 Langston alumni spent part of their bi-annual summer reunion remembering the building, whose future is now set in stone. Or rather, set in materials that are hazardous to your health.
In a matter of days, the historic building will be torn down, its auditorium, classrooms, hallways and administrative offices all condemned by lead paint, asbestos in the walls and ceiling, and mold and mildew from leaks in the roof — problems that forced its last inhabitants, maintenance workers from the Johnson City city school system, to move out. Only the gymnasium will remain.
“I’m angry at the city. I’m angry at the maintenance people,” said alumnus Bill Coleman, “but I’m also angry at myself. I should have said something. We as alumni all should have said something. We’ve all been inside the building. … We saw things that could have been corrected early on, but we did nothing. We didn’t call it to someone’s attention."
Many Langston alumni say the workers did not report problems they saw and the city may have known of problems and done nothing. But alumni agree, they could have stepped up, too.
"There is enough blame to go around," Neal said. "We did not ask enough questions about what we saw — the leaky roof, the mold and mildew. We just assumed they were taking care of our building."
"The fact that we didn’t take action meant the city didn’t take action," said Coleman. "When it was announced back in November last year that the building would have to be condemned, it was too late to do anything to stop it.
"Unfortunately, it was a fatal mistake."
Langston was built in 1892, just a few blocks north of downtown Johnson City. A gymnasium and workshop constructed with historic Rosenwald funds given to communities to enhance the education of black students were added in 1925. Significant building enhancements around 1954 improved the school building to its present appearance. When desegregation closed Langston in 1965, the maintenance department for the Johnson City city school system was headquartered there. The building was renamed the Langston-Biddle Maintenance Center, after longtime city schools system maintenance supervisor George Biddle.
It is fitting that the gymnasium will stay. Coleman says at least saving the historic gym is significant. All schools utilizing Rosenwald funds came with a sense of the African-American community within their walls.
“We are presenting ideas to the city right now for the future of the gymnasium,” he says. “We would like to turn the gym into a multi-functional community center, perhaps a small museum for archives, meeting rooms, and a theater for small productions and neighborhood gatherings. It would serve the community, but also preserve the history of the building. We’re also hoping to salvage some of the bricks to engrave the names of alumni, their families and teachers on, and even preserve the 1925 keystone and archway on Elm Street that faces I-26.”
But those are long-term plans.
In the short term, demolition looms for the main school building, a structure that Langston alumni are not allowed inside anymore, even to say goodbye. It’s boarded and sealed up for required asbestos removal, a painstaking process, and immediately afterwards the structure will be knocked down.
That made the former students’ final visit very poignant. Knowing that the ghosts of the building will be stirred to rise up from the rubble moved some of them to tears.
“It’s heartbreaking to know the Langston home will be gone,” Neal said. “The last time I was inside, I could still remember the teachers we would see every day, who are long gone. To see the quiet, empty hallways and classrooms with no life, no activity was devastating. Even though the outside seems grim, every time I pass by and see the building, I always smile and say, ‘There’s my school.’ When family would visit from out of town, I would point and say, ‘There’s where I went to school. … Look there, at my room right over there.’ ”
Of the African-American high schools that made up the original Tri-State Athletic Conference in upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia from the 1940s into the 1960s, all but one school building remains. The original Swift High School in Rogersville grew from the campus of Swift Memorial College, but the high school building itself was torn down many years ago at the end of segregation. Former African-American high school buildings in Bristol, TN/VA, Kingsport, Elizabethton, Big Stone Gap, Greeneville, Morristown, Newport, Jefferson City and Knoxville all still stand, serving their communities as renovated neighborhood activity centers, civic centers, educational facilities or apartments.
But apparently having slipped under the radar, one former African-American high school building in the region will soon join Swift among the ranks of the dearly departed.
As they await the wrecking ball, Langston High alumni like Veral Jean Neal say, they will never forget their school building.
“It’s going to be heartbreaking when the bricks fall, and we drive by and don’t see the building,” she says. “The tears will surely come again.”