A crowd of several hundred people turned out Friday for the long awaited dedication of Jonesborough’s new McKinney Cultural Arts Center at Booker T. Washington School.
With the family of late Ernest McKinney on stage in the packed auditorium, the program included many words of acknowledgement of the family’s contributions to the community and its education systems and many expressions of appreciation for the transformation the deteriorating segregation-era school building has undergone.
Mayor Kelly Wolfe dubbed it “a joyful day in town of Jonesborough.”
Wolfe credited Town Administrator Bob Browning for having the vision for the town’s acquisition and renovation of the building and acknowledged Browning and the town staff for the decade of work that brought the project to fruition.
Browning credited Washington County Schools Director Ron Dykes for the “meeting of minds” between Jonesborough and the Washington County Schools that allowed the building to be transferred to town for renovation.
Jonesborough Alderman Adam Dickson credited Wolfe for his relentless interest in “making this facility as fine as it is.”
And in the last of several standing ovations that punctuated the speakers comments, the crowd rose to applaud the work of Jonesborough Operations Manager Craig Ford who led the two-year renovation project.
Acknowledgements of the school’s history and of the leadership of the McKinney family were delivered with such sentiment that tears were intermittently spilled throughout the program both on the stage and across the auditorium.
“There’s a lot of history here and we wanted to see this building preserved and protected in a useful way,” Dickson said. “This building was built to uphold segregated division. It’s important now to respect that past even as we continue and hold to a vision for a future of inclusion. In the days and weeks to come we’ll be focused on making sure many cultures are represented here. This should be a place of unity.”
Dickson referred to Ernest McKinney as “the dean of black politics in East Tennessee.” he noted the irony of his April 4, 1968 election as first black alderman in Jonesborough as the same day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis. And he nameoff a long list of black government officials across the local region he said the community would not have had “if Ernest McKinney had not stepped forward to run for election in Jonesborough.”
Dykes read a letter to the family from the Washington County School Board that acknowledged Ernest McKinney as a “pioneering leader” whose guidance brought school system “from the civil rights era to the 21st Century.” And he began and ended his own acknowledgement of Ernest McKinney with two quotes the African-American educator, author and orator for Booker T. Washington he said well describe his “friend of many years:”
“Character not circumstance make the man.” And “No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward,” he said quoting Washiongton.
Kevin McKinney, who followed his father in his election as alderman and went on to become the first African-American elected mayor of Jonesborough, recalled his father “a visionary and a contributor,” someone who “always listened” to others and “imparted a little something.”
On behalf of his family, Kevin McKinney closed his remarks saying, “We are so thankful you have given our family name to this building.”
Browning closed the program with acknowledgments of Marion McKinney, the family’s matriarch who worked as a social worker and guidance counselor in Washington County schools and returned to college to earn her master’s degree while her children were in high school, and of the late Mary B. Martin and her husband James, whose financial contributions allowed the town implement its performing arts program well in advance of the building’s completion.