From segregated school to community space: The story behind Jonesborough’s McKinney Center

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JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Every year, hundreds of students head to the McKinney Center to take classes through the Mary B. Martin Program of the Arts. But the classes at the center today look nothing like those that took place in the same halls starting in 1940.

What is now a place that brings the community together was once Booker T. Washington Elementary School: the African American school for Jonesborough and surrounding counties during segregation.

The years of history preserved still linger not only on the name of the building, but in the community today.

“When it was built, I came in the fifth grade. There were eight grades, we had four grades in each room and one room was the cafeteria,” recounts Marion B. McKinney, now 90 years old.

McKinney, whose name dorns the building today, has deep roots at the school. She and a classmate helped choose the name “Booker T. Washington” when the school opened. McKinney remembers loving her teachers, friends and playing basketball.

“The kids got here at 6:30 in the morning. That was because the bus driver had to bring them early so he had time to go and pick up the white kids on time,” she says.

McKinney remembers her childhood fondly. She says even during a time of nationwide racial tension, Jonesborough was a community that was a small haven of inclusion and community, black or white, even though the schools did not reflect it.

“We couldn’t go to school because it was a law, but there was no law that said we could not play together, sleep together, eat together, you know? So we did that when school was out, that’s the way it was,” McKinney says.

She recalls the only time being separated from her white friends and neighbors as a child was at school and church; and to her, “that’s just how we knew it.”

But today, what once was a school for few is now a place for all.

“We want to make sure that the building that once separated people now is a place where people come together,” says Theresa Hammons, director of the McKinney Center and Mary B. Martin Program of the Arts.

After years of serving as an overflow building for the local school system following integration in 1965, the town of Jonesborough decided to restore new life to the building in 2010, prompting its renovation and reopening as the “McKinney Center” in 2012.

The building is now home to more than 50 courses in the arts, including ceramics, music, dancing, drawing, storytelling and theatre for all ages.

It’s namesake: the McKinney family.

Marion B. McKinney’s husband, Ernest McKinney, was a stalwart of this community. He served as principal of Booker T. Washington for about three years before he went on to teach at Langston School, Johnson City’s African American high school, and Science Hill following integration.

“Ernest was a great child supporter; he loved children,” says Marion.

Ernest went on to become Jonesborough’s first black alderman; sworn in the very day that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the other side of the state.

“For that to happen, for him to be an alderman in our community during that time, it wasn’t common. I think that talks to how well he was thought of and how well the family was thought of,” says Hammons.

It’s a family legacy that lasts through time.

Marion served as the first full-time social worker employed by the Washington County Department of Education. She was also the first African American appointed to serve on the Washington County Election Commission.

Marion and Ernest’s son Kevin McKinney became Jonesborough’s first black mayor, serving in the role for nine years. He served three additional years as an alderman, like his father.

The McKinney family name now forever marks a gathering place for children and adults to celebrate the community and the importance of the arts.

​”We don’t think we are going to create Picassos or people who are going to make millions of dollars doing an art. But we do know we are going to make well-rounded citizens,” says Hammons.

Marion B. McKinney says the arts are close to her heart; she hopes all local children are exposed to art in some way, whether at the center or at school.

If you are interested in participating in art programs at the McKinney Center, visit their website.

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