Hankal has been forgotten too long by Johnson City

Robert Houk • Feb 13, 2012 at 8:25 AM

There are some practical reminders of the founders of Johnson City to be seen today. Henry Johnson, who founded this city as a railroad station known as Johnson’s Depot in 1856, has a city school — the Henry Johnson Alternative Learning Center — named in his honor.

George L. Carter, the railroad tycoon who helped make Johnson City a major hub of railroad activity, fittingly has a railroad museum at East Tennessee State University named for him. It is also appropriate the George L. Carter Railroad Museum is on the ETSU campus since it was Carter who donated the land to create the institution.

There is one man, however, who helped to make Johnson City what it is today who seems to have been forgotten. There is no school, no government building not even a street named for Dr. Hezekiah Hankal.

His name is mentioned on a state historical marker near what was once a school for black children that he started more than a century ago. It seems, however, too small a gesture of remembrance for a man some historians have described as on the most brilliant men this city has ever known.

I’d like to think this oversight is part of a larger problem we have in this state when it comes to remembering great figures from our past. Tennessee just doesn’t do a very good job of instructing schoolchildren on the rich history of this state. And we, the citizens of this state, should be more vigilant in seeking out the truth about the people who have made Tennessee what it is today.

For instance, you’ll find John Sevier’s name on a number of roads, bridges and buildings in Upper East Tennessee. It’s even on a coal-fired power plant, but many local residents would be hard pressed to tell you who John Sevier was.

Yes, folks around here can tell you something about David Crockett and Daniel Boone, but most of their knowledge probably comes more from Walt Disney and Fess Parker than it does from a history book.

The same goes for Johnson City native Col. LeRoy Reeves. More than a century ago, Reeves — an attorney and member of the Tennessee National Guard — sat down and sketched out a design for a state flag that would become one of Tennessee’s most enduring symbols.

Today, a flag bearing his design flies above his gravesite in the Oak Hill Cemetery. That and a historical marker is about all you will find in Johnson City to honor him.

So perhaps Dr. Hankal is in good company when it comes to forgotten heroes of this city. But this is Black History Month, and I would hope someone in power will take note of this slight and pay Dr. Hankal the respect he so richly deserves. It would fitting for a school, medical facility or a community center bear his name.

Born in 1825 and raised by a Dutch family, Hankal would become the first black man in Washington County to hold a teaching certificate. He was an educator who established the first school for blacks in Johnson City. He was also a minister who started a number of churches in the area.

Dr. Hankal was a gifted physician whose skills were sought by both black and white patients. He was credited with saving many lives during the devastating cholera epidemic of 1873.

His many talents earned him prominence in Johnson City. He served on the local grand jury (something that few black citizens were asked to do in the South at the time) and he was elected as a city alderman in the late 1880s (also something unheard of at the time).

Remarkable is the only way to describe this man, and that’s the word I’ve heard Mary Alexander — a local historian and member of the Langston Heritage Group — use in discussing Dr. Hankal. Alexander learned a lot about Dr. Hankal while doing research for her thesis on African-American history in Johnson City. She found he was very much responsible for helping Johnson City grow and become an important center of commerce and trade.

Alexander told me last year she believes Dr. Hankal was a “true renaissance man” in every sense of the word. I agree with her.

That’s why I think it would be appropriate for this city to honor the accomplishments of Dr. Hankal as we celebrate black history this month. Dr. Hankal was a man of many special talents, but he was also a man with a unique vision for Johnson City.

And that’s worth remembering.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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