Monday, July 7, 2008

2008 Slater Business Meeting: "The Strength Of The Wolf, Is In The Pack"

In the early 1900's, three schools were available for the education of the African-American population in Bristol, Tennessee. The Woodlawn Avenue School was located where the Hackler Wood American Legion Post stands today. The 9th Avenue Presbyterian Church also contained a parochial school of 10 grades. The Bristol Normal Institute was operated by the United Presbyterian Church with 12 grades of education.

In 1914, a philantropist named John F. Slater gave a very generous monetary gift to the city of Bristol, and at that time both the Woodlawn Avenue School and the Bristol Normal Institute combined into one school, which was named the McDowell High School. The 9th Avenue school closed at this time, and its black students joined their bretheren at the new school.

Shortly after that, the name of the school was named after the man whose gift started the ball rolling for quality education in the African-American community. At that time, Slater High School continued the quest for excellence.

Students excelled in all areas over the years, especially reading, spelling, music and sports. Slater High School moved into a new building in the late 40's-early 50's on McDowell Street, which still stands today. It is now home to the Bristol Parks and Recreation Department.

"We're trying to preserve the history of Slater as best we can," says John Hogans III, president of the Slater High School Alumni Association. "On the Virginia side, one of our community leaders, Willamena Banks, has a museum of local Black History. She's doing lot to keep those memories in physical form.. Dr. Dixon, the superindentent of the Tennessee schools has started a nice collection of memoribilia for Tennessee High School, and he's including Slater. We have two glass cases, and I'm encouraging everybody that ever went to Slater or anybody that wants to see it, to go over to Tennessee High and tell 'em you want to see the Slater memoribilia and they'll take you upstairs there to see it. I've been collecting as much as I can, and other people have also started looking for things."

That was one topic discussed at the 2008 Slater High School Business Meeting in the auditorium of the old school on McDowell Avenue. Another was how to keep the bi-annual reunions going.

"We discussed that just this year," says Mr. Hogans, "whether to go to a reunion every three years or keep it at two years, and everybody thought people might become disinterested if you don't have it every two years."

"No matter when you do it, though, it's important to at least have one to keep the camraderie and the memories alive. The heritgage is most important, as our alumni have told us. But the problem with keeping it going, is that the schools have closed and there's no feeder system.. there are no young descendants to pass the heritage on to. Eventually, we know it's going to end and we need to do what we can to continue. It's difficult.. people are getting older, getting sick, they're passing away, and they're just not able to participate anymore."

So how do you get the younger people, the descendants of those wonderful Slater graduates, interested in preserving their ancestral legacy?

"I don't have any idea," he says sadly. "We've had one lady in our organization who had some ideas, but they never materialized."

"The younger people enjoy seeing us have fun remembering the good times we had in school, and think that it's great what we're doing, but they don't want to participate. My children are the same way, when we've talked to them. 'Oh it's great what you all are doing,' and they like to see us do it, but they don't seem to want to continue it, for us."

Talk is going around about having one big reunion involving all the former black schools in upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, and maybe perhaps making it a regular event, since each school is rapidly losing alumni every year. Would Slater be part of that great reunion?

"We have talked about it," says Mr. Hogans, "but our people don't see it as a regular event. Perhaps one big reunion with everybody, but just that one time, not the regular thing that we're doing now. One big reunion with all the other schools might work, but other than that, the idea on a regular basis has not been received too well."

But one of the biggest challenges facing Slater High School alumni in the near future will be one of passing the torch of heritage. The legacy of the school rests on the shoulders of current alumni, and their charge is to encourage their descendants to take up the Slater banner, and carry it proudly.

Mr. Hogans says, that task begins now.

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