During the Great Depression, Hugh Collie’s family faced a decision. Stay in Birmingham, Alabama, or move to find greater opportunity. A relative’s advice brought them to Johnson City where the Collie family quickly put down roots with his father founding Johnson City’s first African-American-owned dry-cleaning business.
Mr. Collie enrolled in school in Johnson City, first at Dunbar and later at Langston High School. At Langston, he was very active in extracurricular activities until his graduation in 1943.
He recalled his days playing center on the football team with a smile. When the team played some of the bigger teams from Asheville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, they encountered a David vs. Goliath matchup. “We must have looked like little kids,” Mr. Collie said, adding that the tallest player on the team stood just over six feet tall. “We were small, but we were fast.”
Mr. Collie spoke with pride about Langston’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with these teams and come out victorious. The football coach was also the school’s shop teacher who held high standards for the students and his players.
The football coach wasn’t the only one who held students to high standards. Despite the school’s small size, everyone from the teachers to the coaches to the music instructors were excellent, he said.
“Everything we did was excellent. There might have only been about 25 members of the band, but they were excellent. We were small in number, but people had to recognize (our skill),” he said.
Upon graduation from Langston in 1943, Mr. Collie enlisted in the Army. During his service, he would train in Texas before heading overseas to go through the UK, France and finally Germany. After returning home to Johnson City, he helped found the Pro-To Club in 1952. Since 1957, the club has raised money and awarded scholarships to black students who want to attend college.
Langston’s closure in 1965 following desegregation was bittersweet, Mr. Collie said. “We got what we wanted but lost what we had,” he said.
The entire school population, from 6th grade to 12th grade was no greater than 180 students. Mr. Collie laughed with pride as he said that his graduating class was a “large” class, with 25 students. The size of the school impacted the tone of the classroom, with students feeling empowered to contribute their ideas and questions, he said. The classes were small, and the students were known as individuals, not just faces in the crowd.
Mr. Collie said Langston’s teachers were an integral part of the community. They knew the students as well as their families. If problems arose in the classroom, families were notified. If students had difficulties, teachers intervened and enlisted the families’ support. As students began filtering into the white schools, there was more reticence in participating in class. Mr. Collie said students felt like teachers didn’t know them. The individualized attention and support received in a close-knit environment like Langston was deeply missed.
While regretful that the majority of the Langston School building was not able to be saved, Mr. Collie said he was thankful that the gymnasium survived. He’s also pleased to see the former school get a new lease on life by becoming a multicultural educational center. When it opens in the spring, Mr. Collie, as a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, will be able to share his history, and Langston, with his family, as well as the larger Johnson City community.