Most people know that the building was constructed in 1939, and was the first Works Progress Administration-built structure in Washington County. It opened its doors to African-American students in 1940, and served as the county’s segregated school until integration came in 1965.
Many community members, including Elmer Gillespie, Montreal Brown, Nancy Robinson and Marion McKinney recalled some of its earliest days through oral histories that were collected as part of the Jonesborough Story Initiative, but much of the physical history of the school has been lost.
Efforts were made for years to find old photographs of what the school looked like, as well as class photos, report cards and other artifacts. Few have surfaced.
But recently, a rare photo of the original structure of the Booker T. Washington school was discovered in a collection of papers that once belonged to Washington County Superintendent of Schools (1948-1956), Fred Neil Smith, by his son, Jimmy Neil Smith, who also served as a teacher before founding the National Storytelling Festival.
When Jimmy Neil Smith brought in the old photograph, he was nearly certain the building was the Booker T. Washington School, but several modifications were made to the original structure so he wasn’t completely certain.
To verify that it was indeed the structure, Smith brought the photo to the McKinney Center. After one look at the photo, Parks and Recreation director Rachel Conger excitedly said, “Of course that’s the McKinney Center!” and McKinney Center director Theresa Hammons agreed. All were eager to share this piece of history with the Heritage Alliance to preserve in their archives.
It is evident why Smith was not certain at first. The original structure lacks the auditorium entrance on the front face of the building that now exists, as well as the doors to what is now the pottery room. A small pathway and garden appear to be in the front of the building, where the parking lot now resides. But all of the other aspects of the building match up identically.
In a continuing effort to collect the quickly disappearing history of the McKinney Center, the Jonesborough Story Initiative will be conducting extensive interviews about the historic building and its important place in the community’s history.
The McKinney Center at Booker T. Washington School is looking to interview alumni of the school with the intention of collecting stories about its day-to-day life from 1940-1965, about the teachers and principals who served, and about other alumni.
The center is also looking for more artifacts, including photos, class photos and report cards from those days, and to make good scans and copies of these precious, important documents.
“This school is an important part of the identity of Jonesborough. So many mysteries still live in this building, and we’d like to learn more about the past from the people who lived it,” says Jules Corriere, outreach program director at the McKinney Center. “These stories need to be preserved and shared.”
Hammons said that they have in their collection a couple of class pictures from the 1940s, which they would like help in identifying the students in the photos. Those photos and others will be shared as part of a monthly series over the next year, which will have the McKinney Center staff members Skye McFarland and Corriere working to identify alumni photos and other memorabilia.
Alumni members are encouraged to contact the McKinney Center to share their stories of their days at Booker T. Washington School. They can do so by emailing Corriere at [email protected] or by calling the center at 423-753-0562.