Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Douglass Alumni Scholarships: Generations of Continuing Education


"Don't forget where your help came from, and in turn, don't forget where you came from."

That was the message for graduating African-American high school seniors more than 30 years ago from the Douglass Alumni Association of Kingsport, and it's the same message the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association still has for black seniors furthering their education.

Although the alumni association for upper East Tennessee's largest black high school changed its name two years ago, its focus to provide scholarships to the school's descendants has not changed. "We have always thought that trying to help black seniors heading off to college, would give them an incentive to make something out of themselves," says Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni president Douglas Releford, "and in turn, they would come back in some way and help the community that helped them."

Back in 1982, members of the Douglass High School Alumni Association in Kingsport first wanted to recognize graduating African-American high school seniors, whose descendants attended Kingsport's African-American high school.

"To be recognized by your own people inspires you to do more," says Byron Williams. According to a plaque recently discovered at Dobyns-Bennett, Williams was the first honoree of the V.O. Dobbins Scholastic Memorial Award. At that time, financial scholarships were not fiscally possible, but recognition of academic achievement among black students going to college was absolutely necessary.

Williamson still remembers the day of the awards ceremony at his DB graduation 32 years ago.

"I had no idea I was getting a scholastic award," he says. "When they called my name, I went up on stage in from of all those people. They said I was being honored with the V.O. Dobbins Scholastic Memorial Award, and I was very suprised. I knew about Mr. Dobbins and Douglass High School.. my mother Mabel and my aunt Jesse Dennis both went to Douglass, and I remember they telling me how he used to grow vegetables in his garden in the summer so the students there would have something hot to eat in the winter. My folks always told me about the good education that they got, so the fact that I received an honor with Mr. Dobbins' name on it meant a lot."

"It made a powerful impression on me."

After that first one, recipients of the V.O. Dobbins Scholastic Award were Angela Maxwell in 1983, Delbert Davis in 1986, Rhonda Kincaid in 1987, Shana Wright in 1988, Deeya Dobbins in '89, and Chad Machen in 1990. The award faded away after that year, and the plaque disappeared into the historical archives of Dobyns-Bennett, never to be awarded again.

Eleven years later, Douglass alumni who had been holding reunions every other year since the early 70's, begun to realize the importance of financial support for young African-American descendants of the school. In 2001, the alumni group began providing $500 dollar scholarships to black seniors who met the criteria set forth by an appointed scholarship committee of the alumni association.

"A lot of places won't give out a scholarship unless the graduating senior has a 4.0 grade point average," Releford says. "That's great, but not everybody has a 4.0 GPA.. some have GPA's of 2.8, 3.4., maybe even 3.8. We wanted to reward those seniors who were still going to college, but not necessarily in the top 10% of their class."

"The kids in the lower 90% who were still going to college, deserved a shot at financial help, too. It was our way of saying 'we love you just the way you are. If you try hard, we will reward you for giving it your best shot."

"So far, no one has disappointed us," he says. "It's been very rewarding to see the results."


Scholarship availability was always open to Douglass School descendants, but requirements to receive awards tightened up a bit over the years.

"Two years ago, our alumni board decided to help more of our school descendants and give out more money," Releford says. "We did that by requiring, not only that the recipient be a descendant of a Douglass graduate, but also that the descendant be a member in good standing of the alumni association. That year, 2012, we gave out a total of five scholarships, the most we've every given in a year, and we have averaged at least three every year since then."


To qualify, scholarship applicants have to write a short essay on why they think the financial aid is important to their particular education needs, what course of study they plan to engage in, how they plan to make an impact on society, and also provide a high school transcript. Applicants also have to provide an acceptance letter from the college or university they have chosen. On approval, the Douglass scholarship will then be deposited in the student's name in the financial aid office of the school.

Financial scholarships began in 2001, and were given at Douglass alumni reunions.  The first college-bound students to receive Douglass alumni financial aid were Tia Lanauze and Michelle Hankins. In 2005, Kristopher Leeper was awarded the scholarship, and Terrance Maxwell, Blake Leeper and Courtney Wolfe were the recipients in 2007.

Previously, scholarships were considered and presented to recipients during the Douglass Alumni reunions every 2 years. Upon a rules change in 2010, even more college-bound Douglass descendants benefited from the financial help.

"Our board decided to award scholarships every single year, instead of every other year," says Releford. "Some of our alumni correctly pointed out that students graduate every year, not just every 2 years. They felt that everybody should have a chance. By changing to every year, there is no way that we would miss the opportunity to reward a student with help to continue their higher education."


Since the change, Jessica Williams and Darius Davis received Douglass scholarships in 2010. At right, Briasha Russell, Chris Sensabaugh and Brenton Leeper were the recipients in 2011. The next year 2012 saw the largest number of scholarships in alumni history: Sierra Evans, Todd Gilmore, Courtney Alexander, Kelsie Dulaney and Justin Long were the honorees. Last year, Devanun Swafford, Hunter Muller, Cyndee Morrisette and Jessica Cherry were the winners.


For 2014, the recipients of Douglass scholarships are Evan Wilmer, Akeyia Arnett and Dontae Johnson.  One of the scholarship awards is in memory of local educators Wilbur and Della Hendricks.. 

"Often, our winners are already in school when the scholarship names are announced," says Releford. "When they are not present to accept the honor, friends, family, even grandmothers proudly accept in their absence. Those friends and family members remember the Douglass tradition of recognizing educational talent and are just as proud of getting the scholarships as the people who get the award."

Releford says today, the scholarships are funded through dues from Douglass alumni. Periodically, the group holds golf tournaments, the proceeds from which, go directly into the scholarship fund.

Only a few months ago, the long-lost V.O. Dobbins Scholastic Memorial Award plaque was found and presented to the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association by Dobyns-Bennett High School. The alumni group's board then decided to combine the Scholastic Memorial award and the Douglass alumni scholarships, creating a new V.O. Dobbins, Sr. - Sons and Daughters of Douglass Scholarship Memorial Award.

"This award IS the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association," says Releford. "It is our hopes, dreams, education and community, all wrapped up into a financial package. We do other programs in the community and partner with several organizations in Kingsport, but our main purpose is scholarships for our school descendants. It is our heart and soul that we honor the education that we as alumni received from a school that meant a lot to us. The newly combined scholarship award honors the teachers who gave their heart and soul to make sure we were prepared for life. That's the V.O. Dobbins Sr. part. We cannot give our descendants an education, but we can help them financially, when they chose to get one. That's the alumni association part."


The new focus continues the legacy of the Douglass School of Kingsport through its many descendants, including Byron Williamson. He went on to ETSU, earning a degree in computer science.

"It's a good feeling to know that the community encourages you to go to college," he says. "The feeling that you have done something further than the generation before you, but that generation fully supports you financially and spiritually. If you achieve, give back to the community.. if it's time, give that back.. if it's money or expertise, give those back."

"Always give back to the next generation coming along, simply because the previous generation gave to you."