On the same day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Ernest McKinney became the first African-American elected to Joneborough’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
The date was April 4,1968, and McKinney, who had served as teacher and principal at both the segregation-era Booker T. Washington School in Jonesborough and Langston High School in Johnson City before becoming one of the first black faculty members at the newly integrated Science Hill High School, had made local history. And he was destined to do it again.
After 12 years as a Jonesborough alderman, McKinney went on to become the first African-American elected to the Washington County Board of Education, to serve as the school board’s chairman and to see his son, Kevin, elected as Jonesborough’s first African-American mayor.
A native of Chesnee, S.C., McKinney moved with his family to Johnson City at age 9. He grew up and began his career as an educator in an era in which schools were segregated and not equal, and lived to see those inequities rectified.
Decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 integrated schools here and across the nation, McKinney recalled in an interview with the Johnson City Press how blacks were prohibited from drinking from the “whites only” water fountain at King’s Department Store downtown and how he and other young people defied the rule to see if the water tasted any different.
McKinney graduated from Langston in 1943 and went on to study at Swift Memorial Junior College in Rogersville, where he graduated with honors in 1945. In 1947, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from A&I State College in Nashville, the forerunner of today’s Tennessee State University, where he graduated magna cum laude. And in 1964, he earned his master’s degree in education at East Tennessee State University.
His first teaching position was at Swift, and he also taught in Alabama before returning to East Tennessee to teach at Booker T. Washington. He went on to serve as the school’s principal before moving to Langston and finally to Science Hill, where he retired as assistant principal.
McKinney died in early December 2009 at 86, 11 months after witnessing the election of the United States’ first African-American president.
Two years before his death, McKinney received an honorary doctorate degree in humanities from East Tennessee State University and was placed on historian Joyce Cox’s list of “100 Notable People in the History of Washington County.”
In 2011, he and his son, Kevin, were featured in AT&T’s Tennessee’s African-American History Calendar with others from across the state who had made an impact in their communities. Produced annually by AT&T as an educational resource for Tennessee schools, the calendar is used to teach middle school students about the accomplishments of black Americans across the state. The calendar distinguished McKinney and his son as “community leaders who opened doors to African-Americans in government and education in Jonesborough and surrounding areas, and encouraged others to invest time building their communities.”
The calendar also noted McKinney’s compassion for students, overall integrity, leadership in the Jonesborough civil rights movement and dedication “to making sure students received a quality education at a time when segregation created obstacles.”
In 2009, Jonesborough developed plans to restore, renovate and expand the long idle Booker T. Washington School building for use as a cultural arts center and to name the center in honor of McKinney’s many contributions to the community. Work on the McKinney Cultural Arts Center at Booker T. Washington School began in earnest in the spring of 2011 and is expected to wrap up in early May.