Total Pageviews

Friday, January 9, 2009

‘The Last Great Program at Douglass’ to be held Saturday

Contact Vince Staten at or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at


Professor A.H. Howell began the tradition. Dr. Howell, who along with his wife, Ellen, had come to Kingsport in 1924 from Tennessee A&I in Nashville to run our city’s “Colored School,” liked for his students to participate in programs.
Every Monday was chapel, which might include a lesson from a local minister, followed by a classroom presentation on Lincoln. He liked for his singers to perform, both at school and for local civic groups. His drama club students performed plays for the school and the community. His monthly column in the Kingsport Times-News was always filled with news of his students’ programs.
Howell carried the tradition on when the school — now called Douglass, after the orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass — moved in 1929 from its cramped building in the Y where East Market meets East Sullivan to a long promised new building on the corner of Walnut (now East Sevier) and Bristol Boulevard (now East Center where Rhoten Insurance is today). At last Howell had an auditorium for his “programs.” In March 1935 the school’s quartet —made up of Hubert Armstrong, Simpson Brown, Caldwell Hemphill and Walter McGhee — performed a program for fellow students, singing a medley of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Shine On Harvest Moon,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Coming ’Round the Mountain,” before heading to Nashville to compete in the State Symposium at Tennessee A&I.
The group didn’t win in Nashville, but one member, McGhee, would go on to become a world-famous bluesman when he adopted his middle name and teamed up with a North Carolinian to form the influential blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
And there’s a good chance McGhee wasn’t even the best singer on the Douglass stage in 1935. That honor would have fallen to Alma Gerdner, who won the solo competition at the State Symposium singing “Beautiful Lady in Blue.”
Oftentimes Professor Howell would join in the program. In 1935 the newspaper reported this humorous exchange between the principal and Hubert Armstrong:
Prof. Howell: “What’s was the difference between Noah’s Ark and Joan of Arc?”
Hubert: “Noah’s Ark was made of wood and Joan of Arc was maid of Orleans!”
When the school moved to a new building on Louis Street in Riverview on Jan. 2, 1950, Principal V.O. Dobbins continued the tradition of programs in the school’s spacious new auditorium, which seated 600, according to a Times-News story at the time of the school’s opening.
Integration arrived in Kingsport, a grade a year, starting in 1960 with full integration in the fall of 1965. Douglass closed for good on June 8, 1966, becoming the V.O. Dobbins Community Center.
But the students who attended and performed in those Douglass programs over the years haven’t forgotten them. And Saturday at noon, they will gather in the old auditorium for “The Last Great Program at Douglass.” Kingsport is reno- vating the old school building to transform it into Kingsport’s nonprofit center. Those renovations include the demolition of the historic auditorium.
Calvin Sneed says, “Our plans will be speeches from the stage, music from church choirs in the city, and plays and skits, just like we used to have in the auditorium in days gone by.”
There will also be a video of interviews with former Douglass teachers, including longtime football coach Bob Deering. Deering, who is now in his late 80s and lives near Queens, N.Y., also taught history, biology, science and phys. ed. In the video he recalls football practices during his tenure, 1956-1965. “Sometimes we’d start practice around 3 o’clock, and we’d stay for an hour or two, but sometimes we’d be out on that ball field until 8 or 9 o’clock, until I was convinced the players knew what I wanted them to do. We’d do whatever it took to win.”
Douglass’ football teams won many games over the years, including state championships in 1929, 1930, 1946 and 1947.
The public is invited to attend “The Last Great Program at Douglass.” It starts at noon Saturday in the auditorium at 301 Louis St.
Calvin says, “The auditorium holds a special meaning for many of us who attended Douglass. It was where we celebrated our academic accomplishments, from graduations to plays to concerts and recitals to community events. Former Principal Dobbins insisted that all of his teachers organize and come up with a play every year in the auditorium, and just to walk down the aisles now, you can almost hear the lines from a third-grade French play or a concert from the Douglass Chorus.”
I’ve posted a few old newspaper clippings about the origins of Douglass on my blog,