This is a very special Black History Month for Mary Alexander. Today, she and other lovers of local history will be on hand to see Dr. Hezekiah B. Hankal finally get his due in Johnson City.
It was about this time two years ago that I penned a column noting that many of this city’s founders have been honored with buildings and streets bearing their names.
Sadly, there was no school, no government building or even a street to remember Dr. Hankal. His name does appear on a state historical marker near a church in Johnson City that served as a school for black children when Hankal founded it in 1889. But as I noted in 2012, it seems too small a gesture of remembrance for such a remarkable man.
That will change today.
Members of the Langston Heritage Group and the Boones Creek Historical Trust, as well as elected officials from Johnson City, Washington County and Jonesborough will gather at 2 p.m. at the Washington County Health Department, 219 Princeton Road, to dedicate the building in honor of Dr. Hankal.
Alexander and descendants of Dr. Hankal will also be on hand for the public ceremony, which has been a long time in coming.
Washington County commissioners agreed to name the building for Hankal last year, due in large part to the hard work and diligence of Alexander, who is also a former member of the commission.
Alexander — a local historian and member of the Langston Heritage Group — learned a lot about Dr. Hankal while doing research for her thesis on African-American history in Johnson City. She discovered he was very much responsible for helping Johnson City become what it is today.
Born in 1825 and raised by a German family in Boones Creek, 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 renowned 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, not only in Johnson City, but in the entire region. 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).
I recall Alexander once describing Dr. Hankal as a “true renaissance man” in every sense of the word. After reading his impressive biography, it’s impossible to disagree.
Truly, the words on the historic marker in front of West Main Street Christian Church (which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places as the oldest church building and school building still standing in Johnson City) sum up Hankal’s life nicely:
Dr. Hezekiah Hankal
And now we can add: Remembered.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.