Hidden History: Students, secretary recall Langston principal’s 1954 dismissal

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‘I wasn’t surprised. You know sometimes you can feel something’s just not right. And I knew the superintendents, and I knew their attitudes.”

Laurice coxe on the 1954 firing of principal j. Neil armstrong

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Jean Neal shed tears of joy when a portion of Johnson City’s former black high school reopened as the Langston Centre late last year.

Former Langston student Jean Neal.

Among her memories, though, is one that mixes bitter with the sweet. In April 1954, Neal, then an eighth grader, learned the school’s principal, J. Neil Armstrong, had essentially been fired effective the end of that school year. Under Armstrong, who had served since 1937, Langston had become the highest-rated African-American school academically between Roanoke, Va. and Knoxville.

“We had a good school, we had good teachers, we had an excellent curriculum, and Mr. Armstrong was the leader of it all,” Neal said during a recent visit to the Langston Centre. “We didn’t know why this had happened and it made us mad.”

In a case that drew outside media attention, the all-white school board had voted in a closed session “to relieve Armstrong of his duties at the end of the current school term on June 2,” according to a Johnson City Press-Chronicle article. The paper condemned the closed door session in an editorial, but its coverage was far from done after the April 13 meeting.

A Johnson City Press-Chronicle article about J. Neil Armstrong’s firing by the city school board.

The vote at that session was 4-1. Member Ray Humphreys voted to retain Armstrong. Members voted after Superintendent John Arrants presented written charges that “Armstrong failed to show the leadership necessary to organize discipline and administer a school such as Langston…”

Laurice Coxe, a 1939 Langston graduate, was the school’s secretary when the firing occurred. Coxe remembers a man who did have disciplinary control over the school — one who cared enough about the families in his community that he would sometimes go out at night “if a child was getting into something.”

“The children respected him,” Coxe said. “The one thing that (the school board) pointed out that I guess it was during a chapel service or something like that, someone prayed and one of the kids clapped, and they made a big issue out of that, as if he couldn’t discipline. And he’d been there 19 years – no discipline problems.”

The walkout

Laurice Coxe was Langston’s secretary in 1954.

Coming a month before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education that schools must be desegregated, the action drew a quick reaction from Neal, good friend Mary Anderson and about two-thirds of their fellow Langston students.

On April 21, the students staged a strike, marching to Science Hill High School and demonstrating with placards and chants of “We Want Armstrong.” By that time, members of Johnson City’s black community had asked for a followup meeting. Several petitions calling for the decision’s reversal were circulating.

The students said “they were enlisting the aid of their parents to help in obtaining the reinstatement of Armstrong,” the paper reported. They congregated outside Arrants’ office, where the superintendent gave them a verbal dressing down, according to the Press-Chronicle.

Arrants told the students their action was the worst thing they could do if they wanted Armstrong back at Langston. He told them they could have grades or even diplomas withheld and, according to the paper, questioned whether “you children originated this, or if some adult put this idea into your heads.”

Anderson, Neal’s classmate and friend since first grade, said the students were acting out of a deep sense of injustice, but that they didn’t really have a plan.

“We didn’t know what to do and what to expect, but we did know that we did not want another principal, we wanted Mr. Armstrong,” Anderson said.

She said Armstrong, who was out of town at an educators’ conference, would have told the students not to strike.

With word spreading that students might be planning something, Coxe said she pulled aside a senior girl.

“I said I’m not asking any questions, but if you all are planning to do anything in the morning, don’t put your foot on that school ground,” Coxe recalled. “You get the word out. And she did. So the next morning there were oodles of kids out there. Not a one of them stepped on school grounds.”

Arrants wasn’t the only intimidating element. Neal said the striking students endured taunts from some Science Hill students. “They threw things out the window, they called us names,” she said. “It was exciting and it was scary.”

A glimmer of hope?

Less than a week after the student walkout, about 150 white and black citizens attended a meeting with the school board. One speaker, Walter Lee Price, said the citizens just wanted clarity, which he said the school board hadn’t provided and that such uncertainty was unfair not just to Armstrong but to all teachers in the system.

“The fact that the action took place at the last possible minute before a public tenure law goes into effect leads the public to believe that Mr. Armstrong was released without any charges,” Price said, according to the Press-Chronicle.

Added H.A. Irish, “If it took 17 years to learn he couldn’t discipline the school, something is wrong higher up.”

A Press-Chronicle article about the April 27, 1954 meeting at which the school board agreed to reconsider Langston Principal Neil Armstrong’s dismissal.

Following additional criticisms of the process by multiple speakers, the school board’s chairwoman, Viola Mathes, stepped down from the chair temporarily and made a motion that the April 13 dismissal be reconsidered. The board voted 5-1 to do just that at its May 10 meeting.

Coxe said she believed the white citizens who spoke on Armstrong’s behalf were sincere. “There were some that could see what was going on and were not in favor,” she said.

As is usually the case, Coxe said, even in this situation many people on both sides were nonchalant, “whatever will be will be.” She was not among them. “I guess I spoke too much sometimes.”

In a sign of its significance, the April 27 meeting was covered by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. An article from the paper’s B.T. Gillespie referred to one theory about the firing — that the Supreme Court would rule against segregated schools (that decision came down three weeks later, on May 17).

“Should it do so, board members know that Mr. Armstrong, with his knowledge, experience and degrees, would certainly be eligible for a position as some type of supervisor in the school system,” Gillespie wrote.

May 10 came and went. Armstrong’s job was not reinstated. The man who had dedicated nearly two decades to leading the school moved on, leaving a void that Neal, Anderson, Coxe and others still remember today.

Preparing students for the world

Answers never really came, but Coxe has her suspicions. “We had a superintendent who wasn’t exactly fond of us,” she said. Additionally, she said, Armstrong hadn’t been unwilling to push for better for his students and his school.

In fact, Armstrong had fought for a school secretary until the board finally provided funds for one. It turned out to be Coxe, who started just a few years before Armstrong’s firing. And in 1953-54, he’d been pushing for curricular improvements, including typing courses.

“The superintendent told him that it would be a waste of time and money because there would be no jobs available in Johnson City,” Coxe said. “And Mr. Armstrong said ‘we are not training children to live in Johnson City, we’re training them to live in the world. I never will forget those words. Because they didn’t get typing, but that was his answer. And when I think about how many of our Langston people are all over this country doing well – they were not trained to live in Johnson City.”

A 1938 junior-senior prom picture from Langston High School.

One of those was Coxe herself, who said she learned as much from Armstrong when he was her boss as she did when he was a young principal during her years at Langston.

Neal said black people in America were often considered limited in their ability to learn. Armstrong, who was just a few credit hours from his PhD when he was fired, knew that wasn’t true, Neal said.

“Mr. Armstrong saw more for us than just domestic workers and just janitors, dishwashers and all that,” Neal said. “He wanted us to go as high as we could go and he worked for that. That was his main interest of trying to get extra curriculum for us, just like the other schools so that we could have the rounded education that we were supposed to have.”

Laurice Coxe accepts her ETSU diploma in 1976.

After her stint working at Langston, Coxe became the first black employee in a “GS pay grade” job at the Mountain Home VA in Johnson City. Her success there resulted in a promotion to Washington, D.C., where she spent several years reviewing fraud cases at VA centers around the country.

In 1976, Coxe walked across the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree at East Tennessee State University. It had been 37 years since she had graduated as Langston’s salutatorian, 22 years since Armstrong’s firing and Brown vs. Board of Education, and 18 years since ETSU had first opened its doors to black students — a group of four Langston graduates.

Leaving a void

Armstrong and his wife, Jacquetta, had become a fixture in the community during nearly two decades. At the time of his firing, the Rogersville, Tenn. native was chairman of the Jackie Robinson Boys Club board and a member of Bethesda Presbyterian Church.

Armstrong was also the former president of the East Tennessee Teachers Association, a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes’ executive committee and regional director of the Tennessee Negro Principals’ Study Council.

After his dismissal Armstrong, who had earned his masters at the University of Michigan, finished his doctorate in Chicago. He ended up serving as a faculty member at North Carolina A&T, a historically black university where he’d earned his bachelors.

Coxe said the incident caused emotional pain. “It hurt to lose him. Not only did the school suffer loss, but so did the community.”

The striking students and the community members, Coxe said, “made their point. It didn’t help, but at least it gave them an idea that we weren’t just sitting back and saying, ‘this is okay.’ No. That was not okay.”

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