Langston Grad Hugh Collie Excited to See Project Take Shape

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.

Norman Howard: Langston Teachers Prepared Him for Success, Service

Norman Howard, right, with Michael Young, LEAD board chair. Photo courtesy of the Johnson City Press.

In the 53 years since graduating from Langston high School, Norman Howard has experienced a lot.

During his career, he was trained to direct fighter jets in the US Air Force to targets, managed human resources for two of Ford Motor Company’s massive automotive plants and determined how much to pay Brazilian employees during a period of hyperinflation. Mr. Howard has also served his community. From Big Brothers Big Sisters to the Boys Scouts and Junior Achievement to providing leadership for his church’s Steward Board, Mr. Howard’s service to others has been nothing short of exemplary.

It’s the teachers who molded his world at Langston who deserve the credit, he says.

“Langston had a very profound, positive impact on my life,” he said. “I would not have experienced the kind of success I’ve had without the nurturing, the support, the compassion of the teachers who taught me there.”

After graduating from Langston in 1965, Mr. Howard attended East Tennessee State University for a year. Subsequently, he enlisted in the US Air Force shortly after and worked as an air traffic control and warning specialist (an air traffic controller, of sorts), identifying enemy aircraft and helping fighter jets reach their targets during the Vietnam War era. While stationed in South Carolina, he earned a bachelor’s degree at historic Benedict College, Columbia, SC. Upon graduating, Mr. Howard received seven job offers. He accepted one from Ford Motor Company and headed north to Detroit. He later earned a master’s of business administration from the University of Detroit.

Mr. Howard worked for Ford for some 24 years in human resources (HR). He rose through the ranks to become human resources manager for two of Ford’s auto manufacturing plants, one with 1,800 employees, the other with 4,000.

Next, Mr. Howard joined the executive team of “Greek Town Casino” in Detroit where he was vice president of human resources.  There, he was responsible for a myriad of HR duties and responsibilities, including staffing, employee relations, benefit programs, salary administration, union negotiations, performance evaluations and the training of 3,000 employees.

He then learned of an opportunity with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the largest grant-making foundations in the country.  The philanthropic “powerhouse” established by the well-known Kellogg cereal founder, W. K.  Kellogg.  As human resources director for the foundation, Mr. Howard’s work took him around the world. The foundation had staff in South Africa, South America, Mexico and several other countries. Traveling to those countries and learning the specifics of Human Resource administration, compensation packages and employment laws outside the United States allowed Mr. Howard to further expand his professional skills.

Regardless of where his work took him, Mr. Howard says he always relied on the foundation he received at Langston to guide his direction and leadership style.

“The learning I had at Langston was the basis of how I did what I did,” he said. “There were certainly occasions when I would be in situations and I would think back on those role models (at Langston).”

Indeed, teachers at Langston served dual roles: as educators and role models for their students.

“Being a young African American male in that time period, it was a challenge to identify men in business and industry and other leadership roles (other than our parents) to emulate, so there was a great focus on our teachers,” Mr. Howard said.

The teachers and administrators at Langston were not only highly educated, but they were passionate about teaching young people, he said. They also set high expectations for their students.

“We had to prepare ourselves to be the very best at whatever we did. It wasn’t good enough to do a good job,” he said, adding that the high expectations carried over from the classroom to the athletic field to the larger community.

“We were taught to be very competitive and at the same time to be supportive and compassionate with our fellow students and those in the community. We were instructed to be honest, share and help one another within the community.”

Langston’s teachers’ instruction carried outside the classroom, too, he said.

“They were very good at providing insight about the larger world and what to expect, even though they had not had the opportunity to experience some of the things we were going to face,” he said. “I’m not sure they could foresee the future that we would face specifically, but they recognized the challenges.”

Langston served as the center of the African American community, next to our churches, in Johnson City for decades, and its influence is evident in every graduate, regardless of their career path after high school, Mr. Howard said.

“Before desegregation, one thing Langston provided was a strong learning community that instilled in us an awareness of ‘self-worth,’ pride in our ability and respect for one another. This created a bond of togetherness that sill exists today,” he said.


Johnny Russaw: ETSU’s First Black Football Player Prepared by Langston High Teachers

Johnny Russaw sings the Star Spangled Banner before a football game.

Johnny Russaw knew he was going to change things when he started school at East Tennessee State University in 1964. As the school’s first black football player, Russaw broke barriers while amassing a stellar athletic career at ETSU.

“I knew I was going to change environments. I had always been in all-black environments. It was different at ETSU. Langston prepared me to go in and handle things like that,” he said.

Russaw’s was of one of the last classes to graduate from Langston High School, Johnson City’s only black high school. Langston is also one of the few remaining Rosenwald Schools, which were built to educate African-American children across the South in the early part of the 20th century. Langston operated from 1893 until 1965 when it closed following desegregation.

“I think a lot of people looked at Langston as a sports type of place because we were very successful in sports. But our educational program was what really helped me. It really motivated me to be and do what I did when I went to East Tennessee State,” Russaw said. “I was prepared. Our teachers at the time went above and beyond what we needed to know.”

Russaw said the school’s academic materials were not always up-to-date. In fact, many of the books were cast offs from Science Hill High School. Even so, teachers did what was necessary to ensure students were prepared academically.

“I think in looking at how it shaped my life, it made me more of a man. All in all, it shaped me to be a better man in my community and the places I’ve been,” he said.

Russaw graduated from ETSU with a degree in education. He worked as public safety officer for the Tennessee Valley Authority for many years before retiring. During the next chapter in his life, he worked as a substitute teacher, often at Science Hill, and worked for a decade as housing manager at Bethel Housing, an elderly housing unit in Jonesborough.

“I think it’s important to preserve Langston because it was an institution we looked at as our second home. Coming up, when we were kids, we would look at upperclassmen and we wanted to be like them,” he said. “We had a history at that school, just like people had a history at Science Hill, and you want to preserve those memories.”

Russaw said he often tells his kids and grandkids how they need to carry on their heritage, but he recognizes they’re living in different times than he did. That’s why he thinks it’s so important to preserve Langston for future generations.

“It’s going to be a multicultural center. It will probably have the flavor of Langston, but it’s for the city of Johnson City and the surrounding areas to come and see,” he said. “We still want it to be where black history lives. History is not complete unless you have everything in it. I don’t think the history of Johnson City would be complete without Langston in it.”



Thanks to General Shale for Brick Donation

Without the support of businesses in our community, restoring Langston High School to its former glory would just not be possible. That’s why we’re so appreciative of General Shale.

General Shale has committed to donating the brick products required for the facility’s exterior additions as well as brick, masonry materials and labor for the front entrance fenced wall area.

The company’s donation will offset costs associated with the project, allowing LEAD to use funds raised to completely restore the building. When renovations are complete, Langston will serve as a multicultural center for the community. Youth arts and technology program will also be offered at the center.

Preserving Langston offers the chance to maintain a connection with the school’s historical past and an even brighter future. Her rebirth her legacy, and the legacy of Johnson City’s African-American community, will continue for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

LEAD is working with the City of Johnson City to preserve Langston High School, which served the African-American community from 1893-1965. It closed following desegregation and was used by Johnson City School’s maintenance department for years.

Indeed, restoration of Langston High requires a coordination of efforts. Everyone in our community must help with this endeavor. Donations from large corporations like General Shale are vital, but so are financial contributions from individual donors. It will take a united front to see our dream realized.

Learn how you can help by clicking here.