Sunday, March 29, 2015
East Tennessee Black Schools Closing 50th Anniversary: And The Reunion of the Ages in August!
CLICK ON THE PICTURES TO MAKE THEM LARGER
A few key things were happening during the Civil Rights Movement in 1965.
African-Americans marched for the right to vote. Their hearts were in it, but their community was not.
Black met white on a four-lane bridge in Selma, Alabama, and although the blood was red that flowed that March day 50 years ago, African-Americans did get the constitutional right to vote.
Almost 450 miles to the northeast, integration meant the end of African-American schools in upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. It meant the end of segregation, but it also spelled the end of close relationships between black teachers and black students and the relationships those schools had with each other.
The closings ripped the heart out of the African-American communities in those cities.
The void was filled by reunions held every two years between the individual black school alumni associations. Alumni of the schools came from miles around to get together and reminisce about "the good ole days" and catch up with each other's lives.
Wouldn't it be beautiful to have one big, giant reunion between all of the former African-American high schools in Upper East Tennessee? A chance to relive some of the old rivalries, yet celebrate the wonderful friendships and kindred spirits that hundreds of students all shared back in the day.
The summer of 2015 will be the 50th anniversary of the closing of most of the African-American schools, from Knoxville to Bristol... from Newport to Big Stone.
Efforts are now underway to plan for that huge reunion in late August. The date has been set for SATURDAY, AUGUST 29TH, the location to be announced.
"I value the future and the need for people to know where we came from," says Vivian Releford, president of the Douglass Alumni Association, Bristol, VA. "As a people, we have lost our self-esteem. Our kids don't know how to stand up and be proud of who they are. We have not done a good job of teaching them to be proud of their heritage, which includes the education that their ancestors received."
"That's why this big reunion is so important."
"I was in the last class at Slater," remembered Lawrence Bell, Jr., president of the Slater High School Alumni Association in Bristol, VA. "We love our reunions, and we also love the friendships that we forged with other schools through athletic and academic competitions. The social interaction was undeniably strong. Integration was great....I don't want to go back. At the same time, it was hurtful in a lot of ways. This big reunion is a good thing, to reminisce and fellowship with people we all have something in common with. It will show our communities that we survived.... we endured.... we perserved.... WE MADE IT WORK."
"We all have a story," relayed Mary Alexander with the Langston Heritage Group of Johnson City. "Our stories are all interwoven with each other. Through this big reunion, we need to let people know that our stories are important to our communities. If we don't tell those stories, they die with us. When we get together for this reunion, those stories live on.... when we tell those stories to our young people, they will know how special our histories are... how they are part of those histories."
"I see a Tri-State history," she went on. "It just blows my mind, the potential of a reunion like this. I think this is so exciting. We've got something to show off. It's our histories, our collective histories. Everybody needs to be a part of this. I just can't wait. I love it, LOVE IT. We are important! We matter. OUR HISTORIES MATTER!"
"My grandson came in the other day," remembers Brenda Akins Charles, also with the Langston Heritage Group, "and he says 'Me-me... did you have white friends back then?' I said, 'of course, I had white friends. I guess he was expecting me to say 'no.' This is why the idea of a big reunion is important. What must other young people think about our history? This is a chance to show the young people what we did, how we did it, and why it's important to them."
"50 years is an anniversary worth celebrating," said Doug Releford, president of the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association in Kingsport. "Our numbers are dropping fast. Our past is going away just as fast. If 50 years of celebrating voting rights is important down in Selma, Alabama for the country, remembering our black schools that closed 50 years ago, is also important to us here in our corner of the world."
"My dream has always been to have a big reunion like this," says Barbara Love-Watterson with Langston. "Doug Releford can back me up on this.. we tried to get the idea of a big reunion going, but it never got off the ground. Then I spoke to Calvin and he got excited, which made me excited about it again. Our children have lost their heritage.. they don't know who they are or where they came from, they don't know their backgrounds. Nobody teaches the importance of family histories in school, so we have to do that job ourselves."
"This big reunion is the first step in doing that."
Jeanette Clark from the Douglas Alumni Association in Elizabethton sees the Big Reunion as bringing together old friends and reinforcing the black communities the alumni all represent. "By discussing and remembering what our heritages are about, it's a reaffirmation of our values. Although we have our individual reunions, our children don't seem interested. It'd be hard to ignore a reunion of this magnitude."
"This reunion takes us to the next level," she says. "It re-ignites the soul.. it fires us up. The communities we live in, will see how important this is to us, and they will want to take part. Our young people will want to join in, because they'll see how important it is to us. The extra items is, they will see how important it is to THEM. There's no way to ignore it."
"This big reunion is necessary," the group collectively agreed.
The group went ahead and set a date for the gathering. It will be Saturday, August 29th, with an alternate date of Saturday, September 12th. The thought, group members decided, would be a central location easy for people to get to, that has adequate overnight lodging if folks need that. Specific events that day, will also be decided later, with the thoughts ranging from active displays from each school of academic competitions, to notable speakers from the era.
NEXT MEETING OF THE ORGANIZATIONAL GROUP: SATURDAY, APRIL 11TH, AT 11 A.M., AT THE CARVER RECREATION CENTER, 322 WATAUGA AVENUE, JOHNSON CITY, TN.
CONTACT ANY OF THE ABOVE GROUP MEMBERS, OR CALVIN SNEED AT DOUGLASSRIVERVIEW@GMAIL.COM FOR MORE INFORMATION.