It looks as if Dr. Hezekiah Hankal will finally get the recognition he so richly deserves. Hankal was one of the most brilliant and accomplished individuals ever to live in Washington County, but sadly there is no school, no government building or street currently named for him in this community.
His name does appear on a state historical marker near a church in Johnson City that Hankal founded in 1889. It is a small gesture of remembrance for a man who helped make Johnson City what it is today.
Washington County officials appear to be on track to name the building on Princeton Road that houses the county’s health department for Hankal. A committee of the County Commission had agreed in August to name the actual health department for him, but that decision was reversed earlier this month.
As Press staff writer Becky Campbell reported last week, county officials say that plan was dropped when questions of legality were raised. That I can understand. In fact, I was surprised to learn Hankal’s name would be on something more than the building.
What disappointed me, however, was to hear some officials suggest there might be others from the past equally qualified to be honored in this way. Maybe so, but I doubt there are many who can match Dr. Hankal’s unique résumé.
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 multiple 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).
Yes, Hankal was a man of many special gifts and he was also a leader with a progressive vision for this community (something sorely lacking among most of our elected representatives today). Who better to be remembered at the Washington County Health Department than a man who was a pioneer in both medicine and education?
Mary Alexander — a local historian and member of the Langston Heritage Group — learned a lot about Hankal while doing research for her thesis on African-American history in Johnson City. Alexander is a former Washington County commissioner, and she has helped guide the naming of the health department building for Hankal through the political process.
She said Wednesday she is “content” with the final solution, and will be happy to see Hankal’s name, likeness and accomplishments on display at the Princeton Road facility.
It’s been a long time in coming. Hopefully, this modest gesture will help get the word out about this remarkable man.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.