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Washington County celebrates its place in history

W. Kenneth Medley II • May 17, 2019 at 8:46 PM

“There’s my dad and uncle, hmm … mm, oh my God, this is great!” Georgia Gillespie said looking at a tri-fold piece of cardboard covered with images of her past at the Jonesborough Visitor Center and Museum.

The display is part of Friday’s Washington County Heritage Fair, organized by the Jonesborough Genealogical Society. This was the first year for the event, and event organizers hope to make it annual, said Chad Bailey, president of the JGS.

“Our purpose for the event was to first, bring youth into the event to learn history, and second, bring heritage organizations together,” Bailey said. “We met both. We had 71 student projects here today as well as over 20 heritage organizations spread out through the town of Jonesborough.”

The projects were in three different categories: local history, family history and preservation. Projects ranged from family genealogy to the biographical depictions of select individuals from Washington County history, like Dr. Hezekial Hankal, the first local African-American elected official, elected to the Johnson City Board of Aldermen in 1887.

Living history events also took place, presented by Sons of the American Revolution and other organizations, and re-enactors dressed in 18th century apparel gave tours of the town. From Lincoln Street to Second Street people could be seen digesting history through modern means, as the old world met the new.

“Jonesborough is our county seat,” Bailey said. “It is the oldest town in Tennessee. As it being our county seat and us wanting to preserve Washington County history it was important that we bring (the fair) to the town.”

More than 200 people attended the fair, shopped in town and visited the Washington County Library in Jonesborough, Bailey said.

A presentation at the library attracted a few folks who learned about black education in Washington County. The Power Point presentation by Carla Forney covered Hankal’s role establishing a one-room log school on Roan Hill and helping found Langston Normal School.

Jonesborough and Washington County’s roles in civil rights and slavery are muddled, as told by the descendants of those who lived it.

A historical marker on Main Street marks the location of The Emancipator, the first abolition publication in the U.S. before the Civil War. The Booker T. Washington School, Dunbar School and others were segregated education and community centers for residents of color that serve a new purpose today.

“Black education needed to be recorded because of the lack of black education information available,” said Carla Forney, at the display. “If our kids don’t know what the education history is, it is going to get lost, which seems almost like it is happening now.”

Forney attended school at the Langston High School and Dunbar Elementary School, both were segregated at the time. She said that many of her classmates looked forward to the next step when in school.

“We felt we received a good education,” Forney said, “we just didn’t have the necessary books. Our teachers made the best of what they had. They gave us the best and turned out some great students academically and in sports.”

Forney hopes visitors took away a sense of how far black education has come, and “how far we have to go.” Also at the Black education display was Rachel Smith. She was representing the younger generation and will be attending college soon.

Her experiences have been different, but she says that she has learned much about the tight-knit community that was the African-American school system. Smith feels that some of that togetherness has been lost to students today in Washington County schools, and wants to bring back a unification of the student bodies.

Forney is feeling that unification during the revitalization of Langston High School into the Langston Educational and Arts Development Center. She says that it is wonderful to see the city, its people and county come together to show support for the center. She feels that it will provide another space for unity.

Before all of this historical activity in Washington County, Cherokee inhabited this area, and many still do. Stonewolf was at the Jonesborough Visitor Center with tribal members Walking Bear and Red Horse representing the American Indian role. The trio had weapons, pottery, clothing and jewelry on display, including a quiver made from a bobcat.

“I am full-blooded Cherokee,” Stonewolf said, “Dragging Canoe was here years ago, he was my fifth-great-grandfather and he was on this property up into Sycamore Shoals.”

Dragging Canoe is said to have killed Daniel Boone Jr. at Amis Mill, according to Stonewolf. During the winter of 1776-77, Dragging Canoe left the area and went South before settling near modern day Chattanooga, according to historical records. This was before the infamous Chickamauga Wars.

Today Stonewolf resides in East Tennessee, the land his people were forced from more than 200 years ago in the “Overhill Towns” of the Cherokee Nation. He attends schools, events and other historical gatherings to celebrate American Indian culture and educate others. He helps keep the culture alive in the world today by his presence, art and weaponry that once dominated the region by a proud people.

Others were about town with displays and wearing regalia from the world of yesteryear.

A wide range of American history is packed into one small corner of Northeast Tennessee, from some of the first wars with Native Americans, to the Overmountain Men turning the tide of the American Revolution, to leading the abolitionist print movement to African-American education and beyond.

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