Community dedicates historic marker for Douglas School

  By Julie Fann
  star staff
  jfann@starhq.com

  "If heaven is not my home, then Lord what shall I do?" are a few words to an old spiritual sung by the Phillipi Baptist Church men's chorus during the dedication of a historical marker for Douglas School, where local black students received their education from the late nineteenth century to 1965. About 100 people attended the 1 p.m. dedication Saturday in the former school building, now the headquarters for the Elizabethton Board of Education, 804 Watauga Ave.
  Connie Baker, Elizabethton's African-American Community Committee leader, introduced speakers, which included two former principals, a retired U.S. Ambassador, and a reverend. Sharing memories of an enormously supportive and challenging community school was the dominant theme of the dedication.
  Dr. Wiley Davis, principal from 1956 to 1960, began his speech by reminding the black community of Elizabethton of their heritage as slaves in the United States from 1619 to 1865. "In 1865, there were four million (black Americans). Today, there are probably 28 to 29 million. We have come a long way," Davis said. "I give you that background so you know where we come from. In spite of all its imperfections, this is the greatest, greatest country in all the world. I want you to understand that."
  After reminding former students of activities like sending their drawings to New York for judging and trips to Washington, D.C., Davis made a solemn statement about today's black youth.
  "One of the biggest problems in the black race today is that we are losing too many of our young people. In North Carolina, there are 11 historically black colleges, both public and private, and I worked at one of those colleges for 36 years. But my friends, I hate to see (this), and you and I and all of us are going to have to get behind our young people - there are more black males in prisons in North Carolina than there are in college," Davis said. "We've come a long way and we've gained a lot, but we've also lost something."
  Following Davis' address, James Myrick, retired U.S. ambassador, shared memories of his years at Douglas School; years that he said drew potential out of students and presented them with challenges. Myrick said his eldest brother brought his teacher home from school to introduce her to Myrick, who had just been born. "So immediately you see the connection between the family and the school and the community," he said.
  When entering first grade, Myrick said he wasn't enthusiastic about receiving an education, but his teacher comforted his mother. "Mrs. Shearer just told mother, 'That's OK. Just leave J.Fred with me and he'll be OK.' And I understand that she just sat down and put me on her lap, and that's the way I began my studies there. Do you understand what I'm saying? Encouragement. Nourishment. Right from the very beginning," he said.
  As a high school student, Myrick said teachers and staff didn't really give him the option not to attend college. Mrs. Shearer, the same teacher who once held Myrick on her lap, later became principal of the school. "She looked at me and she said, 'J.Fred where are you going to go to college next year?' ... I looked at her and said, 'You know, Mrs. Shearer, I don't know if I'm going to college.' And she looked back at me and said, 'J.Fred, I didn't ask you if you were going to college. I asked you where are you going to college.'"
  Following the delivery of speeches by former principals and students, held in the Mack Pierce Board Room, the audience dismissed to the front lawn for the unveiling and dedication of the marker. Dr. Earnest Widby, pastor of New Zion True Gospel Tabernacle in Johnson City, led the dedication.
  City Manager Charles Stahl, who attended the dedication, said the marker was a tribute to a proud heritage and the city has been privileged to observe the placing of three markers for the local black community at historic sites since 1999 - the Cedar Grove Foundation, Phillipi Missionary Baptist Church, and Douglas School.
  Douglas School closed in 1965 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the same year American troops were sent to fight the war in Vietnam; the same year that Malcolm X, a black nationalist leader, was assassinated, and the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and more than 2,600 others, were arrested in Selma, Ala. during demonstrations against voter-registration rights.