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Tracing Langston High School's 100-year history

Zach Vance • Dec 17, 2017 at 8:51 PM

“It’s a history we cannot afford to lose.” 

That’s how Michael Young and plenty other graduates of Langston High School feel about their alma mater, Johnson City’s first African-American school. 

And its history will not be lost since Johnson City leaders recently committed $1.8 million toward renovating the former 7-12 grade school. The Langston Education and Arts Development organization is also hoping to raise $500,000 to be invested in the building’s improvements, with construction beginning during the summer of 2018. 

Langston’s roots can be traced all the way back to the 1860s, when Dr. Hezekiah B. Hankal established an African American school in a log cabin on Roan Hill, commonly known as Roan School. 

Hankal, a physician and minister, taught at Roan School, and many history books point to a “Professor Wolfe” as being a principal of the school during 1888.

Hankal and Wolfe were both credited for starting the push for a school building in 1888 to teach the growing African-American population in Johnson City. 

According to the “History of Washington County Tennessee 1988,” Wolfe made a rather modest request for an assistant, a larger building and the textbook “The Graded Course of Study.” 

In 1889, the school was moved to Johnson City’s Main Street Christian Church and a Mrs. Helen Ford was employed as an assistant teacher. A year later, another faculty member was added, and the primary and intermediate classes were held at the church. The high school was one room in a dwelling house owned by a Mrs. Carson. 

In 1891 and 1892, Langston’s future student body met in two Baptist churches while construction was ongoing, and during the spring of 1893, it met in the Odd Fellows Hall. 

Finally, in the fall of 1893, the students were moved into the new Langston High School, named after John Langston, a distinguished Virginia lawyer during that time and the first African American to be elected to public office in 1856. 

On May 22, 1897, Langston graduated its first class with E. Fitzgerald and Julia N. Hankal as its two members.

During the 1920s, Principal the Rev. J.H. Byers decided to add two additional grades to the school’s curriculum and Langston became a 9th through 12th grade school. 

Several years later, during the tenure of Principal J. Neil Armstrong, Langston earned an “A” rating from the Tennessee Department of Education and was approved by the Southern Association of Secondary Schools as an “A”-rated high school. 

During the 1929-30 school year, Langston received $2,400 from the Rosenwald Fund, which was combined with $14,100 in public funding, to construct a six-room shop building. 

Established in 1917, the Rosenwald Fund was headed by Julius Rosenwald, a co-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Working in conjunction with Dr. Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee University, the Rosenwald Fund contributed toward the construction of over 5,000 African-American schools, shops and teachers’ homes during the early 20th century. 

Principal Daly R. Reed, Langston’s seventh principal, added three additional courses during the early 1960s.

Mrs. Edward “Rose” Carson, who had previously served as principal at Douglas Elementary School, served as Langston’s last principal before the integration of schools in 1965-66 school year. 

The Johnson City School System was slow to implement the Supreme Court’s 1955 decision of Brown v. Board of Education, although it began debating the topic in 1954. 

In 1961, the school board passed a resolution that would slowly integrate one grade a year, beginning with first grade, taking a full 12 years to complete. 

According to “The History of Washington County,” Johnson City’s African-American community viewed it as “foot dragging and far too slow.” A federal lawsuit was soon filed, and three years later, in 1965, a final court ruling forced the schools to integrate. 

Even though a few African American students were permitted to transfer from Langston to Science Hill High School during the 1964-65 school year, full integration didn’t occur until the 1965-66 school year, a few months prior to the court ruling. 

Langston eventually became the storage and maintenance facility for the Johnson City School System until 2016, when operations were moved to the MINCO facility. 

Due to being in such a state of disrepair, city officials opted to demolish much of the old Langston School in February, but left the gymnasium intact. It will eventually be transformed into a multicultural arts center. 

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