By Sue Guinn Legg
Born a slave in 1825, Dr. Hezekiah Hankal went on to become one of the city’s founding fathers, a preacher, a teacher and a skilled physician whose practice was integrated following his unique success in treating patients struck by a deadly cholera outbreak that hit the area in July 1873.
According to Joyce and Eugene Cox’s “History of Washington County, Tennessee,” Hankal opened the city’s first African American school in late 1860s in a log cabin on Roan Hill that was commonly referred to as the Roan School.
Ray Stahl’s “Pictorial History of Greater Johnson City” includes an image of Hankal’s teaching certificate issued by the state in 1873. Stahl writes that “so as is known” Hankal was the first black man certified to teach in Tennessee’s public schools.
According to the Cox’s history, when enrollment at Roan School outgrew the cabin, classes were held at West Main Street Christian Church, which was also founded by Hankal, at Thankful Baptist Church and at Odd Fellows Hall.
In 1893, the city built three new brick schools that included Columbus Powell Elementary, where city schools central office is now located, the Annie Wilder Stratton Elementary that now houses Dawn of Hope, and the first African American high school in Washington County, originally known Langston Normal School.
Located at the corner Elm Street and East Myrtle Avenue, the high school school was named in honor of John Mercer Langston, a Virginia-born African American of mixed heritage, Ohio lawyer and statesman and the first dean of the law school at Howard University.
By 1895, Langston’s enrollment had grown to 218, including African American students who had attended grade school in the county that at that time was still without a high school for black students. The faculty that year consisted of three African American men and one African American woman whose average salary was $35 a month. Student tuition was $6.81 per month, as public schooling in Tennessee was not yet free.
By the early 1900s, schools for black children in the city also included the Woolwine School, an elementary that was expanded in 1910 and renamed Dunbar in honor of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In 1920, a second African American elementary was built and named Douglass in honor of abolitionist, social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass.
In 1935, both Dunbar and Langston were expanded in a national school building campaign carried out by the federal Works Progress Administration that had been launched by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to battle Depression-era unemployment.
The Depression negatively impacted city schools, black and white, with the elimination of athletics and extracurricular activities and reductions in teacher salaries that were not fully restored until the 1950s.
With the post-World War II Baby Boom, city school enrollment swelled by more than 1,000 students in a single decade and new white high school, Science Hill, was opened in 1961.
The same year, the city, which had not yet complied with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that integrated schools nationwide, adopted a resolution to integrate classes at a pace of one grade per year, starting with first grade.
Several African American families joined in a federal lawsuit to contest the foot dragging and won the full and immediate integration they were seeking in 1964.
Langston initially became the city’s vocational school where adult classes were offered in the evenings. And with the 1973 opening of the Liberty Bell Middle School complex and a new Science Hill vocational school, the old black high school became a maintenance building for the school system and was allowed to fall into grave disrepair. The building was partially demolished last year to make way for a new multicultural arts center to be built in Langston’s renovated gymnasium.
Dunbar became home to the Grace Temple Eternal Life Center, a stalwart of the Dunbar community. And Douglass, which provided the first permanent location for the Dawn of Hope Development Center for adults with intellectual disabilities, more recently was renovated as center for the nonprofit Rise Up! after school and youth mentoring program.