Dr. Hezekiah Hankal might well be the most brilliant Johnson Citian you have never heard of. His story is remarkable, not only for the times he lived in, but for the impact he has had on generations of families in our community.
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.
After being ordained by the Boones Creek Christian Church in February 1866, Dr. Hankal set his eyes on evangelizing newly freed slaves. He later purchased property at 246 West Main St. from Henry Johnson — who founded Johnson City in 1856 — to establish a new church. Main Street Christian Church acted as a school house for black students, with Langston High School growing out of Dr. Hankal’s vision.
Today, the church is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places as the oldest church building and school building still standing in Johnson City.
Dr. Hankal was also 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 served as a city alderman in the late 1880s (also something unheard of at the time).
Yet, few school children in Johnson City know anything about Dr. Hankal or his many achievements. There are several historic markers in the area relating a few of his many accomplishments, but aside from them there is nothing in Johnson City to celebrate this extraordinary man.
Mary Alexander, a local historian and member of the Langston Heritage Group, discovered 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 a bustling center of commerce and trade. Alexander correctly notes that Dr. Hankal was a “true renaissance man” in every sense of the word.
It seems a great omission that no street in this city is named for this renaissance man. No schoolhouse or other public building in Johnson City bears Dr. Hankal’s name.
City officials and leaders of the local chapter of NAACP would like to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by naming a street for him. That’s certainly appropriate. Dr. King is an important figure in the history of this country and should be remembered for his contributions to civil justice.
Just as it would be appropriate for the city to similarly remember the accomplishments of Dr. Hankal. Like Dr. King, he, too, reached out to people of all races, religion and walks of life. Certainly, Dr. Hankal was a man of many special talents, but he was also a man with a unique vision for Johnson City.
That’s why it would be fitting for his name to grace a structure that someday will serve as a testament to such vision. The Community Center at Memorial Park is expected to be completed in the spring. It is a facility that promises to bring people together — young and old — under the same roof.
We can think of no better way of paying tribute to Dr. Hankal than attaching his name to this facility. The Dr. Hezekiah Hankal Community Center at Memorial Park would be a place to unite all Johnson Citians. That’s something we think Dr. Hankal would have liked.