As people filtered through the doors at the International Storytelling Center, where the gala was held, it was like a reunion of sorts with people greeting one another, asking how they were doing and reminiscing over old times. These former classmates seemed just as memorable to each other as they were decades ago as high school students.
Langston opened its doors in 1893 and served black students until the end of the 1964-65 school year. Carla Forney remembers 1965 well, as she was part of the last graduating class at Langston.
“We took what we had and we turned out some good students,” she said, adding that Langston was not as well funded as Science Hill High School. “We didn’t get the books the white school got,” she said.
Forney said she doesn’t remember that time to be a time of tension in Johnson City, and she still has fond memories of her younger days, but over the years it’s been difficult to see her beloved high school fall into disrepair. At some point after Langston closed, the Johnson City School System began using it as a maintenance building.
She said Langston’s football team played on the same field as Science Hill, but the games were on Thursday while Science Hill played on the traditional Friday nights. Each Thursday, the Langston band would march down Main Street prior to the game and people gathered to watch the parade. Those are the memories many of Langston’s former students carry with them.
It’s that love and devotion to the school that community members have pushed for reviving Langston into a community center for learning and the arts.
Saturday night’s gala and fundraiser was sponsored by LEAD — Langston Education & Arts Development — and proceeds will go toward the $2.3 million renovation of what remains of Langston the gymnasium and former shop area. For years, former graduates and community members pushed for the city to repurpose the former high school, and in July, the Johnson City Commission voted on to approve the multimillion dollar contract to renovate the facility.
Once the renovation is complete — in late spring or early summer of this year — 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.
LEAD has had tremendous community support with numerous monetary donations from area businesses.
“The reason LEAD is working hard is to bring Langston High School back to its place in the community,” said Shelia Arnold, an African-American storyteller from Hampton, Va. “When integration came, that school was put to the side in spite of the fact that school was a major, a strong part of the African American community.”
Langston students had to integrate into the white high school, “which was leaving everything that was good,” Arnold said. “Of their teachers, four were given positions in the integrated school, which means they lost their teachers, they lost their culture. They lost a part of history and the building was relegated to maintenance ... to be able to bring this building back, to be able to teach through this building .... the untalked about history of Johnson City.”
Even though the building closed and students relocated to Science Hill, the Langston motto has stood strong all these years — “Enter to learn, depart to serve.”