Langston Centre puts spotlight on black history

David Floyd • Feb 23, 2020 at 9:00 AM

Every time she walks into the Langston Centre, Jean Neal feels like crying.

“I just feel that much pride and I’m just so excited,” said Neal, who is 81 and attended Langston High School in the 1950s, “and I want to do everything I can down here just to keep that feeling going, that pride in going to an all-black school.”

On Wednesday, Neal had just attended a noon class at the Langston Centre on the history of the civil rights movement, one of a series of history classes spanning multiple topics taught at the facility by East Tennessee State University history professor Daryl Carter.

“These are going to be designed to be friendly exchanges between me and whoever shows up in which we can address broad important issues that relate to the topic,” Carter said of the courses.

The new Johnson City facility, which acts as a hub for multicultural programming, is built on the former site of Langston High School, Johnson City’s black public high school that closed in 1965 with desegregation.

Neal, who is retired, participates in as many activities as she can at the Langston Centre. In addition to the classes, Neal will narrate a couple of scenes in an upcoming original play produced in honor of Black History Month called “Unbroken,” which will be performed at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 and 5 p.m. Feb. 29 at the Langston Centre. The production will feature performers of all ages.

Tickets for adults are $12. Kids in grades 1-8 get in free and tickets for high schoolers with a student ID cost $5.

Susan Rhea-Wagner, 63, attended the opening of the center in November and has participated in several history classes at the facility.

Carter just completed a series of classes at the center on African-American history spanning 1619 to the present and, in the coming months, is scheduled to teach sessions examining African-American music and President Barack Obama’s handling of race-related issues and his impact on conversations about race.

“I wanted to get more black history,” Rhea-Wagner said of her decision to attend the classes. “When I was going to school, we didn’t get black history.”

Even now, Rhea-Wagner said many schools aren’t giving enough focus to black history and believes younger people should use the center as a resource to learn about their heritage. 

“This may be the only place they may be able to get it,” she said.

Holistically, Carter said his classes address the role of African-Americans in American history.

“You can’t discuss American history without African-Americans,” he said. “It’s just impossible.”

Under the leadership of supervisor Adam Dickson, who Carter noted has deep ties in the community, Carter said the facility has done a good job developing programming and attracting underserved groups and school children to engage with STEM education and learn new skills, such as coding.

“I think what makes Langston a jewel ... is that it does something that the rest of the city government does not do,” he said, noting the Langston Centre is using its history encourage current generations to think about the past.

Carter said it’s important for ETSU and the university’s department of history to have a presence at the Langston Centre. He said the programming is affordable, and the center can act as a meeting area for people with similar interests.

“You’ll get to meet other people who are curious about one thing or another, whether it be history or arts or programming or something else, so they can gain some insight into themselves and to the community and to the world around them,” he said.

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