Black History Month: Doctor had prominent role in establishing education for African Americans in Johnson City

By Sue Guinn Legg

The establishment of Johnson City’s first school for African American children is attributed to one of the most revered figures in the city’s early history.

 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.

Downtowner Gas Station: Sam and Jeweldine Kinley

By Amy Kinley

These are pictures of my parents, Sam and Jeweldine Kinley, and their children. My dad Sam, managed the Downtowner gas station in Johnson City for Rex Debord and they are pictured together. My sister Susan and I are pictured with dad’s Broncho with the Downtowner advertisement on it. My mom worked in the Johnson City Memorial Hospital as a registered nurse in the Labor and Delivery dept. and this is a picture of her wearing her white uniform. There’s also a picture of mom and two of my sister all dressed up for Easter.

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A poem for the Sesquicentennial Kick-Off

Poem Read at Sesquicentennial Kick-Off, January 5, 2019

Several people have asked me for a copy of the poem that I read at the Sesquicentennial Kick-Off on Saturday, January 5. I read a poem that I found in the Archives of Appalachia in October. If my memory is correct, Mary Hardin McCown, Johnson City’s first historian, had written these words on the back of an envelope. (I have inserted punctuation for ease of reading.)

Life is a story in volume three
The past, the present, and yet to be.
The first we’ve written and laid away,
The present we’re writing from day to day.
The third and last of the volumes three
Is hidden from sight. God keeps the key.

I wanted to research some of these phrases, so I Googled. It appears that there is another poem, with an unknown author, that is very similar. There is no date attached, but here it is:

Life is a book in volumes three –
The past, the present, and the yet-to-be.
The past is written and laid away,
The present we’re writing every day,
And the last and best of volumes three
Is locked from sight – God keeps the key.

Today in Johnson City History: February 11


Feb. 11, 1886: The Comet reported on the Coasting Club’s big snow of the day; many sledders had a grand time sliding down the big hill that is behind Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church.

Feb. 11, 1951: Charles Hodge Mathes passed away. He was one of the original faculty members of East Tennessee Normal School.

Professor Charles Hodge Mathes, an original member of the faculty of East Tennessee State Normal School (ETSU), is shown on horseback in this undated photo. He served as first dean of the school (1911-1920), taught English and modern languages, and was alumni secretary (1922-1949).

Feb. 11, 1992: The International Championship Rodeo started the first day of a six-day run at Freedom Hall Civic Center. Total attendance exceeded 13,500. A year later, on Feb. 11, 1993, the Rodeo returned to Freedom Hall for four days, and attendance was 14,625.

Feb. 11, 2010: Former Science Hill High School basketball coach and principal George Pitts was named among 12 people to be inducted into the TSSAA Hall of Fame.

Sources: The Comet; Glimpses of Johnson City, Tennessee; Johnson City Postcard History Series; Bobbie H Shirley, Freedom Hall; Johnson City Press.

For more about Johnson City’s 150th Birthday, visit

From a reader: Father and son plumbers

By Ron Jennings

My Grandfather, Thomas William Light who was once the Johnson City Plumbing inspector when he was in his 80’s, started helping his father plumb buildings in Johnson City around 1910. Papaw was born in 1895. He served a stent in the army, F Company, 45th Infantry, 9th division. Around 1918 his Infantry boarded a train in Atlanta, Georgia and traveled to Montgomery Alabama. It was there that he refined his skills to become a professional, licensed plumber.

Many of the buildings in downtown Johnson City had their initial plumbing installed by Papaw. I recall the Kings Building and the Sears building in particular being two of the ones he talked about most often. Papaw met the love of his life, Stella Kate Gosnell, married her and had 13 Children. The last two children that were born were twin brothers, Ronald and Donald.

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Memaw gave birth to all her children at home with the help of a midwife. On this particular day, she was about to give birth to her 12th child on the couch in her living room. Papaw was nervously waiting outside on the porch. As the midwife was cleaning her up, pains hit Memaw again in her stomach and to the surprise and shock of the midwife and Memaw she gave birth to her 13th child. As the two boys were being cleaned up, Memaw seemingly in desperation told one of the midwives to fetch Tom, quickly. Papaw, not knowing yet that he had twin sons ran to Memaw’s side. He asked her if she was alright. She said, “Tom, lean down here, a little closer.” At that point she slapped him across the face and said, “You old goat, when they start coming in twos, I quit. You ain’t touching me again.” From what Memaw told me, from that point on, he never did. They were married nearly 60 years.

Uncle Ronald and Donald became professional boxers, making the headlines in the local paper on several occasions. They joined the Navy where they continued their boxing career. When they return home Papaw had turned his plumbing skills into a thriving Plumbing Company. He convinced Uncle Donald to help him in the business. They along with Donald’s older brother Roy became very well known throughout the Upper East Tennessee area, especially when their business spread into the Kingaport area.

As a veteran, papaw became well acquainted with the folks at Mountain Home. They liked his work so well that at one time they employed him there to be their plumber where he worked for 50 cents an hour plus room and board. I wrote all of this to lead up to this amazing, once in a lifetime experience. About 1910 papaw as a teenager helped put in the plumbing at a Residential Building at the V.A. It was the building directly behind the lab. About 1975 the residential building was being tore down. His son Donald was with him on the day the V.A. decided to start taking out the plumbing. Papaw having authority over the plumbers on the construction site that day turned to the foreman and instructed them to let his son Donald take the plumbing out, letting them know, “I put this plumbing in this building in 19 and 10 and I want my son to take it out these 65 years later!”

Uncle Donald reminded me of this story last fall as he and my Aunt Beverly were visiting my baby brother Thomas (yes, named after my grandfather) and his wife Alonda in Chuckey. Thomas is also an Army Veteran (28 years) so he and Uncle Donald had a lot to talk about. Oh yea, although I’m not a veteran I was named after Uncle Ronald, Donald’s twin. Just had to slip that tidbit in. Last memory about plumbing, papaw helped many times with plumbing at the Shamrock store on Buffalo street (which as of this writing has been there about 90 years) where he would take me as a boy and buy me a delicious Mellowdew ice cream cone.

A business (grocery store) on Magnolia was built and ran by our Aunt (great aunt) Viola Maine and her husband Fate Maine.  They opened about 1950.  Uncle Donald helped them stock the shelves for the 1st time.  It became a booming business known as Maine Grocery.  Aunt Viola was Papaw’s (Thomas Light) sister-in-law. Their original house is still standing at the corner of Magnolia  and not sure of the cross street. It’s just up from the golf course.

Thank you Uncle Donald for sharing this Amazing story of the Father and Son plumbers. R.I.P. papaw, your plumbing legacy lives on here in Johnson City, in 2019.


Throwback Gallery: Johnson City before 1900

The Science Hill Debating Society in 1869

New bank in downtown Johnson City, 1870s.

The Enterprise was Johnson City’s first newspaper.

East Tennessee & Virginia Railway Station – 1885

First National Bank

Hart-Range Saddle and Harness Shop City Hotel in Background – 1870s

“Johnson’s Depot” East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railway

Stage Road – West Market Street 1870s

Johnson City Reds – 1886 Captain Cy Lyle Seated 2nd from left

In background, Jobe’s Opera House 1884 – 1905

“Apple Sellers” 1880s

Summers Company – New Street

President Benjamin Harrison’s speech in Johnson City, April 14, 1891


Photos courtesy of Johnson’s Depot.

Roe honors Johnson City’s 150th birthday in Congress

U.S. Rep. Phil honored Johnson City’s Sesquicentennial on the floor of the House on Tuesday.

Roe made the following remarks on the House floor to recognize the city’s 150th anniversary:

Today, I rise to celebrate and pay tribute to my hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee for its sesquicentennial. In 1856, entrepreneur Henry Johnson opened a railroad station and a commercial business, Johnson’s Depot; and just 13 years later in 1869, Johnson City was founded, holding its first election on January 3, 1870, when voters elected Mr. Johnson as the city’s first mayor.

Today, Johnson City boasts a diverse economy, attracting national and regional companies, while also supporting countless small business owners.

The city is home to three major hospitals; to the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center, which serves more than 170,000 veterans; and to East Tennessee State University, recognized for the highly regarded Quillen College of Medicine and Gatton College of Pharmacy.

The city has become a thriving community for more than 66,000 residents, and I look forward to what’s in store for Johnson City over the next 150 years. I ask for unanimous consent to submit a more complete statement on Johnson City’s history into the record.

Happy 109th birthday, Opal Leedy!

In 1909, construction began on the RMS Titanic, three years before she would sink on her maiden voyage.

William Howard Taft began his four-year stint as the 27th president of the United States. Kinemacolor, the first successful color motion picture process, was invented, and the U.S. Army Signal Corps Division bought the world’s first military airplane from the Wright Brothers.

And Opal Leedy was born in Sullivan County.

Leedy celebrated her 109th birthday Thursday surrounded by friends and family. Mayor Jenny Brock, Vice Mayor Joe Wise and Commissioner John Hunter stopped by to present Leedy with a key to the city and a proclamation marking Dec. 27, 2018, as Opal Leedy Day.

Leedy’s brother, Glay Hood, also paid his older sister a visit. He is 101 years old, and brought Leedy a gift in a bright purple bag — a photo of the two of them.

Leedy was born in Sullivan County, but lived much of her later life in Unicoi County. She was the seventh of 10 children born to Dutton and Alice Hood, and grew up on a farm in a community near Fall Branch known as Possum Trot. She married her husband, Dave, in 1925. Her husband’s job at the state highway department kept the family moving until the late 1930s, when they settled in Unicoi.

She and her husband would raise three children, and nieces and nephews who remember a fond childhood with their aunt Opal. Ruth Linville said Leedy was always her favorite aunt, and said that staying over with Leedy became one of her cherished memories.

“She’s one of the sweetest ladies that you’ve ever met,” Linville said. “She touched a lot of people in her lifetime.”

“She was always a spiritual inspiration for me,” her nephew Roy Leedy said. “She’s just a model mother, and a model aunt and I really appreciate her.

“She’s loved by a lot of people.”

Above all, Leedy’s family remembers her as a giver — someone whose selfless actions touched many lives through her own. She was an active member at Unicoi Free Will Baptist Church, taking on any task where her assistance was needed and helping people throughout her life.

Her daughter, Robbie Higgins, was born in 1933. Higgins, now 85, said she remembers her mother taking care of all the children in the neighborhood — Leedy would make peanut butter sandwiches and drinks, marking their yard as the No. 1 hangout spot in the neighborhood.

Some of Higgins’ earliest memories include Christmases full of handmade gifts from her mother. Even though the Great Depression took its toll on their family, Higgins remembered that her mother was always trying to make the holidays special for her children.

“She was a good mother. We never went to bed hungry, even though we didn’t have a whole lot,” she said. “We never had riches, but we had love.”

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Johnson City starts small, dreams big

On Dec. 1, 1869, 149 years ago today, Johnson City was first chartered.

We’ve grown and changed a lot since then, from a little village on the road between already established towns, to a bustling industrial boom town full of hope and promise, to a modern city with strong educational and medical institutions, proudly offering its nearby natural beauty for the world to enjoy.

There are plenty of stories to tell about the city’s people, places and events from the last century and a half, and the Johnson City Press hopes to recount many of them for you leading up to the milestone 150th anniversary next December.

Our staff is working with the Johnson City Sesquicentennial Commission, the people planning the 150th celebration, to bring you all the Johnson City history you can handle.

One feature, “Today in Johnson City History,” will give you a daily dose of the important happenings over the last 150 years. We’ll also be dedicating our weekly Heritage stories specifically to Johnson City for the next year, and we’re starting a people profile series looking at the important players in our community.

We have more ways to celebrate planned, and we’ll be announcing those exciting developments later, but for now, let’s talk about where it all started.

Founder Henry Johnson purchased land from Tipton Jobe at the intersection of the East Tennessee, Virginia Railroad Company’s line from Chattanooga to Bristol and the stage coach route from Washington, D.C., to Knoxville, now Market Street.. He built a general store there in 1853, planting the seed of what grew to be the city’s downtown core.

With an established foothold, other families began settling in the area around Johnson’s store, and his scratched-out patch of land became a tiny town.

Johnson’s entrepreneurial spirit drove him to expand his operations, and he began offering lodging for travelers, then built a railroad depot, where he took on all the freight and ticketing jobs associated with the new stop.

He then convinced the authorities to relocate the local post office from “Blue Plum,” a residence two miles away on Sinking Creek, to what had become known as “Johnson’s Depot.” In addition to his shopkeeping, hotelier and rail agent duties, he became postmaster and handled all the mail himself.

According to a 1922 article in the Johnson City Chronicle, Johnson would carry the mail to the back of his store and call out the addresses on the post as village residents waited for theirs to be called.

In 1869, after the conclusion of the Civil War, the town was officially chartered as Johnson City. In the first city election on Jan. 3 ,1870, Johnson was unanimously elected as its first mayor.

Five years later, on Feb. 25, 1874, he died, leaving behind a legacy in the town that bears his name.