“If he couldn’t, he’d get back to you,” said Debbie Grey, who worked with Young at the Langston Education & Arts Development organization. “He’d say, ‘Let me get right back to you. I’ll find that out.’ And he could.”
A member of Langston’s last graduating class and the last student to officially graduate from the school, Young, who died over the weekend, ultimately became a powerful voice in resurrecting the legacy of Johnson City’s all-black high school in the form of the Langston Centre, a multicultural facility that stands on the former site of Langston High School. The school closed with integration in 1965.
“As Michael said to me often, in 1965 there were three places that an African American could be fully accepted, and that was their home, their church and their school,” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, who was a sophomore at Science Hill High School when Young was a senior. “They were losing their school.”
Brock said she got to know Young as the Langston Centre project got started and admired him for his “gentle tenacity” — his mind set on getting the facility open.
“He was the right person at the right time to move the project along,” she said.
After the school closed in the 1960s, the structure fell into disrepair over the years.
Langston Centre Supervisor Adam Dickson said Young, who served as chairman of the LEAD organization, was an adroit “spokesperson” for the need of the new center, which the city officially opened in November after years of advocacy by former students and other members of the community.
“It seemed like every time you wanted to go before a fundraising group or go before some entity to at least talk about the work that was being done here, you always wanted Mike,” Dickson said. “Because Mike gave the most passionate stories about his time here.”
Dickson said Young loved his high school.
“This community really shaped him and he never forgot it and wanted everyone to know it,” he said.
Brock said Young envisioned two roles for the center: One, as a place to preserve the memorabilia and story of the civil rights era in Johnson City and two, as a center for the promotion of local multiculturalism.
“He saw it as the heart and soul of the cultural element in our city — that we could make sure we are broadening our understanding of the importance of diversity,” Brock said.
Although there were times when she said Young felt like stepping down as chairman, in part because the task could feel enormous, Grey said Young had a “gift of gab” and knew the school better than most. She noted he was the perfect person to lead the organization.
“That’s what people wanted to talk about when you were going out for donations or wherever,” she said. “They wanted to hear about Langston — what makes this building or this project so important that I need to give. And he was good at that.”
Dickson, who met Young in 2015 when the project was “just a thought,” said there a couple of times after the grand opening of the facility that Young walked into Dickson’s office at the center, looked around and said, “Adam, we did it.”
“He would say, ‘We did it, we did it. God’s let me live long enough to see this, and I’m just excited,’” Dickson said.