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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Douglass School Day Memories--Reprinted From the Kingsport Times News, February 4, 2007

School day memories

Douglass alumni launch Web site to share recollections (Photos for this story are in the PHOTOS section)

When Calvin Sneed walks the halls of the red building at 301 Louis St., in Kingsport, it brings back memories of his school days at Douglass Elementary-High School. “As you look down the hall, you can still hear the bell ringing and the kids coming out of class,” Sneed says. “The cafeteria is still there with its old stainless-steel counter top. It can be like a step back in time.”
Sneed’s recollections are tempered by the fact that Douglass no longer exists as a school. Kingsport’s lone African-American school, which served students in grades kindergarten through 12, was shut down in June 1966 when the city desegregated its school system. The building today serves a dual role as the V.O. Dobbins Community Center and the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency.
Although the school itself has been gone for more than 40 years, it’s still vital to the 300 or so people that make up the Douglass High School Alumni Association. The organization hosts a reunion every two years as a way of commemorating the school’s influence in the Riverview community.
“It had more of an impact because it was a neighborhood school,” Sneed said. “The teachers emphasized the family part of growing up, as much as they emphasized the three R’s and what you needed to learn.”
The school’s legacy is also being celebrated on a new Web site at Launched on Dec. 30, it contains historic information, vintage photographs, reunion updates and current news about the Riverview neighborhood. Put together by Sneed and fellow alumni Roberta Webb and Donald Hickman, the site received nearly 800 hits in its first three weeks.
A television news anchor at WTVC-Channel 9 in Chattanooga, Sneed said the site was created as reminder of how the Douglass High School experience helped steer young people toward successful lives. “We graduated doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers and, to my knowledge, one television broadcaster,” Sneed said. “There’s so much culture and history coming out of that one little neighborhood school. It changed the lives of everyone who attended.”
Bits of that culture still reverberate inside at 301 Louis St. The cafeteria described by Sneed is still there, as are the gym and the auditorium. There are also significant differences. Classrooms have been subdivided into offices, while the awards earned by Douglass sports teams have been assimilated into the trophy case at Dobyns-Bennett. But the memories are vivid.
“Our school was sort of a landmark for us,” said Douglas Releford, a 1963 graduate. “Anything that happened in the community, it happened at the school. We had the gym for school functions and plays. Whatever church you went to, you could get together with everybody at the auditorium in the school. It brought the whole community together.”
Jill Ellis, a Douglass guidance counselor who moved over to Dobyns-Bennett when Douglass closed, says the school helped build a close-knit community.
“Because we were K-through-12, we had camaraderie that schools don’t have today,” Ellis said. “It made for a cohesive group.”
That cohesion spilled out into the Riverview neighborhood where most of the children lived. Releford recalls most of the children as being well-behaved. If they weren’t, then a watchful community saw to it that they paid the consequences.
“You didn’t just get discipline from your mom and dad,” Releford said. “It was everyone in the neighborhood. You could be down the street doing something wrong, and someone would say, ‘I’m gonna tell your mom and dad.’ And by the time you got home, your mom and dad knew about it.”
Sneed has a similar remembrance.
“You could stand to get your butt beat by someone down the street as much as your parents,” Sneed said. “Everyone looked out for each other.”
The discipline in the neighborhood extended into the school. Although there was a truant officer on duty, Ellis said principal V.O. Dobbins would often take matters into his own hands if a child was missing from school.
“If a child didn’t come to school or was late, Mr. Dobbins would go to the child’s house, knock on the door and drag him out,” Ellis said. “He knew where everybody lived. That was one of the reasons we had no dropouts. It was a strong system, and kids stayed in school.”
Named for Frederick Douglass, an anti-slavery leader during the Civil War era, the original Douglass School was built in 1928 on the corner of Center Street and East Sevier Avenue after a succession of earlier schools for black children were deemed either inadequate or too small. The student population would eventually outgrow the school, leading to the building of the Louis Street facility in 1951.
The school officially opened in the fall of 1952. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruling in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education outlawed racial segregation in public schools in the United States.
Douglass School maintained a high academic standard, gaining accreditation from the Southern Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges, which assured graduating seniors that their educations would be furthered at quality universities.
In addition to quality academics, Douglass became known for its fiercely competitive sports teams. The marching bands and choruses also earned superior ratings, while the school further distinguished itself within the community through “Miss Douglass” competitions and various plays and pageants, funded mostly through the sale of sports concessions.
“That made us very proud,” Ellis said. “We had something in our own community. We had a state-of-the-art auditorium with a full stage and lighting and a theater. Our own projection room. We were something special in town because we were the newest school.”
But all those good feelings were accompanied by the pending specter of desegregation. “There was a feeling of urgency,” Ellis said, “even though it seemed like a perfect community with churches, homes and schools. When you get court rulings, it’s a wake-up call.” A small group of Douglass students to transferred to Dobyns-Bennett in 1965. Douglass then closed its doors for good on June 8, 1966, with all students who had not graduated being assimilated into the all-white schools of Kingsport.
Sneed, who was in the sixth grade at the time, recalls desegregation as being distressing for both black and white students. “It was intensely traumatic,” he said. “Most of the images white people saw of black people on television or in the newspapers were riots, fights and destruction. That made a big, big statement when all of a sudden the only black school in town closes down, and all they know of black people is what they’ve seen and heard on TV. That made it a very tough experience.”
“It was pretty hard,” Releford said. “People wanted to go, but they didn’t want to go. When we were at Douglass, it was a big family. We had a lot of one-on-one with the teachers.”
Sneed hopes to keep the spirit of what Douglass meant to the Riverview community alive through the Web site. The community’s concerns will be addressed at this year’s Douglass High School Reunion, which will be held June 29 through July 1. The reunion’s theme is “It’s a Great Time to Come Home.”
“It’s poignant because of the demolition and the rebuilding of the Riverview apartments which all of us grew up with,” Sneed said. “The whole neighborhood is going to look totally different the next time we get together. The complexion of the neighborhood is changing greatly.”