JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Anna Armstrong’s years-long fascination with Langston High School’s history found the perfect outlet recently — and hundreds of fifth graders will be the better for it.

In December, the Mountain View Elementary School librarian interviewed seven students who attended the 7th to 12th-grade Black school that closed when Johnson City’s schools fully integrated in 1965. Those videos are the heart of a Civil Rights curriculum Armstrong developed for Mountain View’s fifth graders that brings the era as close to home as possible.

Mountain View Librarian Anna Armstrong at an event celebrating the former Langston High School students who contributed to a new Civil Rights curriculum for Johnson City, Tenn. (WJHL photo)

The one-day lesson, which interviewees and other visitors celebrated at Mountain View Feb. 20, was so well-received by the schools’ administration that they’re putting it in all eight elementary schools in the district.

“Johnson City students need to know their local history and to spotlight the pride these alumni have in their Langston,” Adams told News Channel 11.

Those alumni were happy to share that pride, as well as some honest recollections about Johnson City’s lawsuit-prompted move away from segregated schools that finally occurred a full decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education ruling.

“It’s important always to connect standards to the local history,” Armstrong said. “I think that’s great for students to have a meaningful connection. But I also want Langston to be celebrated because it was such a unique school and a special school that these alumni are so proud of and what they did there.”

When most of the interviewees walked into Mountain View’s library Feb. 20 to see what Armstrong had produced, they were met with a room filled with student-produced art celebrating their alma mater.

“The art teacher (Joanna Barnett) did a great job of using old Langston photos in the artwork so the students saw in the lesson and are using in the artwork as well to show that Golden Tiger pride,” Armstrong said.

An undated photo of the Langston High band (The Langston Centre).

Then they watched a curriculum presentation that had at least one of them calling Armstrong “a jewel.”

“She captured what we would want to say and she was already a part of it before she spoke to us, so that’s beautiful,” 1962 Langston graduate Evelyn (Fields) Debro said.

“She’s done something very important. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Getting hooked on Langston

The fact is, Armstrong wasn’t coming to the project on a whim. Interest in Langston, its students and its importance to the community had percolated in her mind for nearly eight years.

It was 2015 and Armstrong, a fifth-grade social studies teacher at Indian Trail Intermediate School, went to the funeral of beloved custodian “Teddy” Hartsaw at St. Paul AME Church.

“They asked Langston High School alumni to stand up and all these people stood, and I was like, ‘wow, I want to know more about this,'” Armstrong said.

Co-worker Danny Williams put her in touch with prominent local historian and Langston graduate Mary Alexander. Armstrong was off and running, quickly devouring Alexander’s masters thesis that chronicles Johnson City’s Black history — with extensive information about the schools, segregation and desegregation.

“From then, I’m hooked,” Armstrong said. “Her enthusiasm was contagious, and in the spring of 2016 she brought three or four people to share their remembrances of Langston.”

Then some academic shuffling intervened as Armstrong switched to teaching sixth grade in the fall of 2016. That grade didn’t include a Civil Rights unit and the project went to the back burner.

Guests at the Feb. 20 Mountain View event highlighting the new curriculum. (WJHL photo)

But by last spring, Armstrong was Mountain View’s librarian, and the fifth grade was moving back to the elementary schools. The passion flared again, and the other district librarians jumped at her offer to try and put together a Langston-themed curriculum. She got buy-in this fall from Langston Centre Director Adam Dickson, who oversees a multicultural center in the portion of the school that was refurbished in 2019 and then just “started asking people.”

Golden Tiger pride

“I said ‘how do you want Langston to be remembered,” Armstrong said of her conversations with former students. “Almost every one of them replied and said ‘I want them to remember that this was a place of excellence, a place of learning. I want them to know how much our teachers loved us, what a community and family we had within this building.”

In one video clip, Mary Letcher, who was among a small group to begin integrating Science Hill High School in the 1964-65 year, describes attending Langston as similar to “moving from one family to another.”

“We moved from home from that family and then went to school, and they took care of us and nurtured us,” Letcher said.

1962 Langston High School graduate Evelyn Debro. (WJHL photo)

Debro said knowing students will learn about Langston from people who went there makes her feel wonderful.

“Langston hadn’t meant anything to anybody because we are grown up and our children, they know we go to reunions but it kind of just died,” she said.

Indeed, Armstrong said a majority of Mountain View students knew nothing about Langston or Johnson City’s two Black elementary schools, Dunbar and Douglass, even though some of the kids had relatives who had attended. She said students were hooked just like she was when she first delved into the school’s rich history.

“I think if I could describe it best it would be you know this awareness as well as this almost sense of awe,” she said.

“When you talk about the Golden Tigers athletics, the band program and telling them some of the memories about how … even at a time of segregation the Langston band on Thursday nights would gather in front of a bank and the whole community, black and white, would show up to watch the band and then they’d march to the stadium to play their game.”

“We had such a great heritage,” Debro told News Channel 11. “We always assumed we were going to win the football games and win the basketball games. Everything changed after the school disintegrated.”

In fact, Debro goes so far as to suggest she might have stayed but for the outdated books and inferior equipment common to Black schools in that era.

“If it had been separate but equal, I would have chosen to always stay at Langston,” she said.

That said, she’s glad in retrospect that the schools integrated. Her two youngest sisters, Joy and Lottie, went to integrated Johnson City schools from kindergarten.

Debro said she thinks Armstrong’s project is all the more important given what she sees as a troubling trend in K-12 academics.

“We lost a lot of our heritage,” she said. “That’s the part that bothers me is that heritage is lost, and not they’re trying to take it out, ban so many books and they don’t want it taught. That’s stupid, because you’re just going to repeat it.”

Student artwork proclaiming Mountain View Elementary’s love for the Langston High Golden Tigers. (WJHL photo)

What the former students and Armstrong all seem to hope is that if there is any repeating going on, it will be the current students taking to heart what former student Lisa (Callahan) Black says in one of the videos was at the heart of Langston’s ethos.

“The motto was ‘Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve,’ and also ‘A Legacy of High Expectations,'” Black says. “And that’s what you were in tune with.”

Armstrong said she believes the repurposing of Langston to a community center can help preserve the good and continue to cast light on areas where people can learn better ways of living with one another.

“To see that building that once was used as the Black high school in Johnson City now become a center for the community to use, to see that Langston legacy continue of ‘Enter to Learn Depart to Serve’ and to have our kids now knowledgeable of that legacy is amazing,” she said.

The full videos are at Armstrong’s YouTube channel and can be accessed here.