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Morris-Baker Funeral Home donates $10,000 to Langston renovation fund

Zach Vance • Nov 17, 2018 at 1:01 AM

A group working to renovate Johnson City’s oldest African-American school into a multicultural education center is $10,000 closer to its goal.

The Langston Education and Arts Development organization received that boost to its fundraising efforts Thursday at City Hall when Morris-Baker Funeral Home President Preston McKee handed over a check to the group as a way to give back to the community.

The funds came from the Morris-Baker Community Fund.

“As a company, we always look for ways to reinvest in our community, and the Langston project stood out, especially given my grandfather’s relationship with Mr. Birchette. We look forward to watching Langston take shape and continue to provide a positive role in Johnson City,” McKee said.

McKee said the donation was a way to honor the longtime friendship between his grandfather, the late Carson Baker Jr., and J. Fletcher Birchette III, a 1962 graduate of Langston and former president of Birchette Mortuary.

Birchette Mortuary’s current president, John Fletcher Birchette IV, is treasurer of the LEAD executive board of directors.

“Both my grandfather and Mr. Birchette were Johnson City natives who left the area to continue their educations but returned home where they operated successful businesses for decades,” McKee said. “Throughout the years, my grandfather and Mr. Birchette supported each other’s efforts to not only build their businesses, but to improve the larger community as well.”

For years, former graduates and community members pushed for the city to repurpose the former high school, and in July 2018, the Johnson City Commission voted on to approve a $2.3 million contract to renovate what remains of Langston, the gymnasium and former shop area.

While the city allocated $1.8 million toward the renovations, the LEAD group pledged to raise the remaining $500,000 by the end of the year.

When construction officially started on the project in October, a LEAD press release announced the group had secured more than $325,000 of that goal, not including the $10,000 Morris-Baker donation. Appalachian Community Federal Credit Union and General Shale have also donated toward the cost of renovations.

“I am humbled that Mr. McKee would choose to honor his grandfather’s friendship with my father. My own family — and the larger Langston High family — are especially grateful that he chose to remember Fletcher Birchette in such a generous way,” Birchette said.

“My father loved Langston and was the living embodiment of the school’s motto: ‘Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.’ He spent his life quietly helping improve the community around him, and he would be so pleased to see the widespread support offered to this project.”

Architect Tom Shanks said interior demolition work is still ongoing, as the exterior of the site is prepared for the construction of an entryway, which will be attached to the front of the building. Shanks also said some of the old brick columns inside the building will soon be replaced with steel posts.

Once the renovation is complete, which Birchette estimated to be late spring or early summer of 2019, the city intends to move programming from the Princeton Arts Center into Langston. The LEAD group intends to also use the space for STEM-focused education and mentorship programs.

“This project is more than bricks and mortar. It’s an opportunity in our community to bring people together,” Vice Mayor Jenny Brock said during the press conference. “We are stronger when all the voices in the community are gathered around the table.”

To learn more about the Langston High School renovations or to make a donation, visit leadlhs.org.

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