Friday, May 8, 2009

"Save Me A Seat:" Association Saves Seats From Auditorium


Contact Vince Staten at or via mail in care of the Kingsport Times-News. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at

When the city decided to tear down the old Douglass School Auditorium (part of the V.O. Dobbins Community Center), it asked the Douglass Alumni Association what it wanted saved. “Seats from the auditorium were tops on the list,” said association member Calvin Sneed, “followed by the stage draperies, the door signs, the school bell from the front of the balcony — which was one of the original bells from when the school opened in 1952 — the custombuilt light fixtures from the ceiling, and the spiral staircase from behind the stage.”
Some of the items weren’t salvageable. The lights were embedded in asbestos. The staircase — known to many Douglass students as the “stairway to heaven” — was anchored in concrete.
But the group got the other items. Except for the seats.
Then group members read in the newspaper that John Sevier Middle School had gotten 122 Douglass Auditorium seats.
Still they weren’t worried: There were a couple of hundred more seats.
But next came heartbreaking news from the city. During the asbestos removal, almost all the seats had been ripped from their concrete moorings and couldn’t be saved. They were taken to the landfill. Only one block of four remained.
“The news, as you can imagine, was indeed devastating to the Alumni Association. Those old seats probably didn’t mean much to anybody else, but to former Douglass students, they were the seats from which we heard symphonies from the Douglass Band, recitals from the Douglass Choruses, plays from the Douglass Elementary School children, speeches and rallies from teachers, principals, neighborhood clergy. Those seats were symbols of wonderful times, spent in what former Principal V.O. Dobbins Sr. once called the most acoustically perfect auditorium in all of Kingsport.”
Then a miraculous discovery.
“After the asbestos was removed from the building, I accidentally discovered one single auditorium seat sticking out from underneath all the stuff that was piled up on the stage and bound for the landfill. You should have seen my mouth drop open when I maneuvered around all the junk to that one seat and saw others buried underneath all the garbage.”
After much pulling and tugging and moving bricks, wire and trash, Calvin began stacking what he’d found.
“The result was about 30 salvageable seats in need of refinishing, but still standing proud. I spent the next four hours hauling those seats in my Honda down to where the KHRA has loaned us storage space. I had seats hanging out the back, seats hanging out the open passenger car door. But I was bound and determined to get those seats out of the auditorium and away from destruction.”
The Douglass Alumni Association has plans for those seats.
“Some of them will grace the Douglass Riverview Community Room in the renovated Dobbins Community Center. Others will be placed around the building as resting ports for folks waiting on others visiting the nonprofit offices. We’re even proposing memory dedication plaques for each one, with donations helping with the refinishing and upkeep of the seats.”
Calvin says those seats will help the community keep the spirit of Douglass High School alive in the renovated building.
“My goal is to help us go much farther than other communities have done for their former African-American schools. I have visited them all, and right now, there are no big memorials to the George Clem High School in Greeneville, none for the Douglas School in Elizabethton, none to Bland High School in Big Stone. None to Swift Memorial in Rogersville. None to Tanner in Newport. Only token remembrances are there to Langston-Johnson City, Douglass-Bristol, Virginia, and Slater in Bristol, Tennessee. Kingsport has put forth a large commitment to keep the memory of the Douglass High School alive for everyone who visits its former building, and I’m proud to help in that effort. I’ve not seen that kind of commitment to any former black school anywhere in East Tennessee, and Doug Releford tells me those alumni are jealous of what we’re doing in Kingsport.”