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Justice, not cowardice, wins in Johnson City

Johnson City Press • Nov 17, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Every person who calls Johnson City home should commit these names to memory: Eugene Caruthers, George Nichols, Luellen Wagner, Elizabeth Crawford and Clarence McKinney.

As the first blacks to integrate what is now East Tennessee State University in the 1950s, these five pioneers paved the way for thousands of others toward a rightful place in higher education. They bravely enrolled despite the violence in other communities perpetrated by whites who opposed integration.

Shamefully, 60 some years later that legacy is still being targeted. Two weeks ago, flyers with the phrase “It’s Okay To Be White” were plastered across the ETSU campus, including over the five placards memorializing the contributions these five students made to the institution’s history.

It was a cowardly act born of ignorance, hate and jealousy. The still-faceless perpetrators clearly have an inherent lack of self-worth since they feel a need to diminish the accomplishments of others to state their own places in society.

It is now and has always been OK to be white in America.

What’s lost on the imbeciles who posted those flyers is that it has not always been safe and socially equitable to be a minority in America.

And while progress may have been made, the struggle for equal footing continues in 2019. No magic wand has been on hand to erase centuries of prejudicial treatment, oppression and generational disadvantages.

That’s why the memorial at ETSU is so important. Our history shapes our present.

Four of the five on that memorial wall spent time at Langston High School, the city’s secondary school for blacks during segregation. Three — Nichols, Crawford and McKinney — were Langston students. Caruthers, the first to enroll at East Tennessee State College as a graduate student in 1955, taught Nichols and others at Langston.

Today, Johnson City will take another step for history and social justice with the opening of the Langston Centre, a multicultural education facility and community gathering place created from the school’s shell. It took Johnson City 54 years to make this right.

When the courts forced Johnson City schools to integrate in 1965 — 11 years after the U.S Supreme Court said they should have — the city closed Langston and later used it as a school maintenance facility. By the time the maintenance department vacated the building in 2016, severe negligence had left the original 1893 building and a later classroom addition unsalvageable.

As Langston alumni lobbied to see their old school converted for community use, they were disappointed to learn that only the gymnasium addition would stand.

But stand it does. The $2.5 million project is a testament to the perseverance of Langston’s alumni who challenged a city to do the right thing — even if it was 54 years after the fact. The Langston Education & Arts Development organization, which led the charge, has helped adorn the facility with memorabilia from Langston’s glory days as a lasting tribute.

It should not be lost on you that the ugly incident at ETSU happened just weeks before the Langston Centre’s grand opening. The dichotomy at hand represents exactly why the Langston project was a long overdue step in this town.

We strongly believe the Langston Centre’s development represents the growth of sentiment in this community. Yes, as proven at ETSU, some among us are unwilling to shed themselves of the racist trappings of the past, which hold back all of humankind. But far more are opening their minds — some more quickly and definitively than others.

As of today, at least some justice is in brick and mortar in Johnson City. We should celebrate.

The public is invited to join the city and LEAD from 2-5 p.m. today at the Langston Centre’s grand opening at 315 Elm St.

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