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Saturday, February 20, 2010

"We Got It:" The Future of Douglass Linked to a New Historical Marker of Its Past

"We got it."

Those three simple words are rapidly circulating among Douglass alumni and Kingsport city residents, and it now mean the entire state of Tennessee will know the legacy of Upper East Tennessee's largest African-American high school when it closed in 1966.

The Tennessee Historical Commission has approved a historical marker commemorating Douglass High School (1928- 1966). Douglass will join its bretheren Langston in Johnson City, Douglas in Elizabethton, Morristown College, and the Swift Memorial College-Price Public School in Rogersville, with historic markers containing facts and little-known knowledge about the school.

"The legacy of Douglass High School in Kingsport lives on today, and is very deserving of our state's recognition," says Tennessee 2nd District State Representative Tony Shipley. "The school's motto 'looking hopfully onward' did in fact, lead to several generations of African-American students to better lives."

A drive around Kingsport will find several Tennessee Historical Commission markers. The nearest one to the Riverview Community is one that commemorates the Donelson Flotilla, as Colonel John Donelson amassed flatboats for the river trip in 1779 that ultimately resulted in the founding of Nashville the next year. That trip began at the south end of the Wilcox Drive bridge over the South Fork Holston River where you'll find this marker, less than a thousand feet from Riverview.

Another marker only a few feet away recognizes the Avery Treaty, that precedes the Donelson Flotilla by a couple of years. This one could be one of the most historic in Kingsport, as it commemorates the signing of the treaty that transferred much of the Cherokee Indian land that is now the Tri-Cities to white settlers. It also notes that even though the treaty was a done deal, the settlers violated its terms frequently. These are the only 2 historical markers near the Riverview Neighborhood.


"We get from 18 to 24 applications for markers every year," says Linda Wynn, the Historical commission's Assistant Director for State Programs, the division that directly oversees historical markers. "People like you send in the criteria and I go over the information to make sure it meets the standards for a marker. From my desk, the information then goes to the Markers and Monuments Committee, and they make a decision either for or against, based on the documentation presented. The full commission then acts on the committee's recommendation at its next regularly scheduled meeting."

"Documentation is required for all text on the markers," she says. "It's sort of like a research paper, in that you have to document in writing the source for every quote you put down. In the template for the marker text, there is space for a bibliography to point us to the source for all your information. It's a verification to us that everything you're putting on the marker is true and accurate."

The Douglass High School text was compiled with the help of former teacher Jill Ellis, as she wrote it for the school's entry in the book "80 Years of Enlightenment--Recollections of Kingsport Teachers." In that, she noted facts about Douglass most of which could be easily verified in writing, and are listed in the entry's bibliography. But there was one reference for which verification was not readily located.

It was the reference that Kingsport's Douglass School was one of the original Rosenwald Schools.


"In confirming one of the facts you listed in your facts," says Ms. Wynn, "I saw that reference to the Rosenwald Foundation, and immediately jumped on that. We have a number of markers with Rosenwald references, and if Douglass was indeed a Rosenwald School, that information needed to be on the Douglass marker. As a result, we needed you to verify that information as fact. It's another reflection of how Rosenwald affected education of African-Americans across the state and the South."


Indeed, research turned up the original Rosenwald Foundation database that was stored by African-American scholars, at Fisk University in Nashville. The Douglass-Rosenwald School was located within that database, and it turns out Douglass was the only Rosenwald-funded African-American high school in upper East Tennessee.

The Markers and Monuments Committee also noticed another fact it felt important. "We wanted to use the fact that Douglass was one of the largest African-American high schools around, because the documentation is there for that," Ms. Wynn says.

Apparently, there is so much documented information on the Douglass High School, that a one-sided marker is not enough for commemoration.

"We are proposing a two-sided marker," she says. "What that is, is the text begins on one side and continues on the back side. Most of our markers have the same information on both sides, except in the case where there are more important facts for which there is written documentation. With the Rosenwald information, the 'largest black school' documentation, and other facts, Douglass fits that bill."

Our research of two-sided markers in East Tennessee has discovered one other two-sided marker, this one in nearby Baileyton, Tennessee. Click here to read the Greeneville Sun article about Baileyton's marker. As of this writing, that marker has yet to be placed.

Ms. Wynn notes a big increase in the number of markers, both requested and approved for former black schools.

"In upper East Tennessee, you have Langston, Douglas-Elizabethton, Swift-Price, and soon, Douglass-Kingsport," she says, "and we are getting more applications all the time. My feeling is, the school was the hub of activity in the community and when it closed, that hub was lost. It was what the community centered around. Just like you all had an interest in recognizing the Douglass School, someone else had an interest in Pearl High School in Nashville, Eaton-Meigs, Cameron, the Haynes School in North Nashville."

"They were all the centers of their communities."


"When I first got here, there were markers for 12 African-Americans," says Ms. Wynn, "and now there are 200 markers denoting black history. They range from schools to individuals. There's one for the National Negro High School Basketball tournament, Sarah Estell is on 5th Avenue here in Nashville..she was an African-American businesswoman back in the 19th century. There's also one that commemorates "Blacks in the Civil War" and one for D. Ford Bailey, a pioneer in country music."

"There has always been this idea that if history is important to us as a people, then we need to pass it down," she says. "I tell young people all the time that there's not reason why they should not be good in math and sciences, because if you look back at the continent of Africa, those subjects are utilitzed and our people are very good at them. So, why are our students having problems with them? A lot of that has to do with history, and that's why these markers are so important in the African-American community."

For folks interested in involving their kids in history, the Tennessee Historical Commission is sponsoring Tennessee History Day. In the past, students have written competitive essays on historic conflicts and compromises in the state, and Individuals in History. This year's theme is Innovation in History. The regional competition will be held at the U-T Student Center in Knoxville on March 1st.

Click here for more information on how to enter a student or students in the Tennessee History Day competition, or call Kelly Wilkerson at (615) 741-8934. You can also email her at