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Alumni gather to remember Scott County's only African-American school

Calvin Sneed, community contributor • Oct 21, 2018 at 12:00 PM

“Prospect School is the name we bear ... her cause we each embrace. Each Prospect Son and Daughter ... should feel the Prospect place.” — from the Prospect School Pledge by Principal Mary Wolfe Coley, 1940

GATE CITY — Mary Lee Cornett Watterson remembers how important an education is.

“They taught us what we needed to be successful in life.”

At the first-ever reunion of Prospect Public School alumni in Gate City, she was among the many former students whose schoolwork began with only two instructors teaching seven grades. She graduated Prospect’s seventh grade class in 1962.

“Those two teachers had to deal with all of us each and every day,” she remembers. “But they made sure that we were not leaving Prospect until we were ready for the next level.”

Prospect was Scott County’s only African-American school. It was located at the top of the hill on Manville Road in Gate City, in the communities known locally as Sticktown and Trot. The historic school closed because of integration in 1964, and the recent reunion was the first time the alumni had ever gathered as a group to catch up with one another.

“We are hopeful that our descendants can pick up on this gathering and pass on its importance to the community,” says Rochelle Dobbins Maxwell, Class of ’62, and one of the reunion’s organizers. “The students learned well and took that foundation with them as their education continued.”

More than 30 faithful alumni came from as far away as Massachusetts to reunite with the fellow students they studied with, as well as locally from Bristol, Kingsport and the town founded as Estillville in the early 1800s and renamed Gate City in the latter part of that century.

As an elementary school, Prospect only provided an education for African-American students until the seventh grade. Total school enrollment averaged between 30 and 55 students, which peaked in the early ’60s just prior to the school’s closing.

“I remember well the two teachers that I had while I was there,” Watterson says. “Miss Clyde Patton and Miss Mary Wolfe Coley, who was principal from 1936 until the school closed. Miss Patton taught me from the first grade through the fourth grade, and Miss Coley taught me from the fifth grade through the seventh grade. Classes would run for certain times, then students would be given assignments to complete. While they were doing those assignments, another grade would be taught. That’s how they kept the grades separate.”

She also remembers telling that to her own children, who could not understand the concept of two teachers teaching seven grades. “It sounds complicated,” Watterson says, “but actually we had fun learning with all of our friends, often in the same room.”

Since Gate City High School was not integrated at the time, graduation to the eighth grade from Prospect before the 1940s meant moving away to receive higher education in Christiansburg, Virginia. After that came a few daily round trips to Slater High School in Bristol, Tennessee, but mostly during the ’50s and ’60s to Douglass High School six miles away in nearby Kingsport.

Watterson remembers well the daily trip to school in Kingsport.

“It was so hurtful to us to get on the vans and buses and ride all the way to Kingsport and pass by the high school in Gate City that we could have been going to all along,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Douglass and I live in Kingsport now. But we only knew that whenever the Virginia schools were out for certain holidays, the schools in Tennessee might still be open and we had to be there. We would pass right by the school that was closed for the state holiday to go to the school in another state that was open. That makes a big impression on a little child who doesn’t understand.”

The original Prospect School had its beginnings in 1906 in the neighborhood community center. In 1919, a two-room school building was constructed between the current Hales Chapel United Methodist Church and a cemetery on the then-dusty dirt street known as Manville Road west of downtown Gate City. According to a database at Nashville’s Fisk University, the new Prospect School was built for a total of $2,300, with the breakdown as follows: $1,200 from the African-American community; $600 from the Scott County Board of Education; and $500 from the Rosenwald Fund. That fund, started by Sears, Roebuck & Co. executive Julius Rosenwald, provided money for the building of more than 5,000 black schools around the South from the 1920s through the ’40s.

“For Scott County in general, money from the Rosenwald Fund meant that someone else, someone from out of town, was interested in not just educating a few black children, but all of the black children in the community in the best facility possible,” Maxwell says. “It made a huge statement. Meanwhile, my grandfather had given money to the new building as a member of the African-American community. He couldn’t read or write, but he made a pledge because like others, he believed in the value of education. He later became treasurer of the community funds that helped pay for the school building.”

Prospect was one of four Rosenwald-funded school buildings in the Tri-Cities, along with the New Canton School in Hawkins County, the Douglass High School building on East Walnut Avenue (now East Sevier) and the Bristol Highway (now East Center Street) in Kingsport. Only the Langston gymnasium in Johnson City still stands as a Rosenwald-funded facility in the area.

When Prospect Public School closed in 1964, its attending students and Principal Coley were assigned to Shoemaker Elementary. The graduating students went on to Gate City High School. A paved parking lot now sits on the Prospect building site, which was torn down in the ’80s.

Prospect’s legacy provided a renaissance to the alumni who attended the reunion picnic at Gate City’s Grogan Park, where any mentions of the neighborhoods Sticktown and Trot drew whoops and hollers. The event featured displays with pictures of the school building, family and class portraits, and memorabilia collected over the years for possible reunions like this one.

Barbara Rogers Johnson, daughter of Mary Wolfe Coley, spoke of the good times at the school learning with her friends and the bad times. That included spankings from her mom that were stronger than those given to her classmates.

“We got all of our whippings in the coat room at the front of the school,” she remembers. “She’d always say, ‘Honey, I have to whip you harder than I whip the others or they’ll think I’m prejudiced.’ 

“Going to Prospect was no picnic,” she went on. “I was always one of the first at school, and on a cold morning, we were the ones who had to build the fire in the stove to keep everybody warm. All of my classmates would push and shove to get that seat right there in front of the fire. You could learn better if you were warm.

“Other students wanted that front seat and would get mad,” she laughed, “because I always got it first.”

William “Billy” Tarter talked to the alumni about continuing the legacy of Prospect Elementary and sharing it with others. “We should move to join the Great Golden Gathering that reunites all of the former African-American schools in Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. They’re creating a union where all of the schools keep up with each other and fellowship from time to time. Even though we were just an elementary school, we were the only black school in Scott County, and we have a faithful band of alumni that should be included in the Gathering.”

All of the school alumni seemed to delight in telling strangers where the neighborhoods of Sticktown and Trot got their names.

“Sticktown got its name from the trees on the hill on Manville Road,” says Maxwell. “Back in the day, all of the trees were cedar, and when the people chopped them down to get wood to make houses, the cedar trees would splinter and you’d end up nailing boards to the cedar sticks that were left. You could see those sticks holding the boards together from the road. That’s why they called it Sticktown.”

Trot was located just down the hill near Fir Street and West Jackson Street, and just across a small creek from Sticktown, Maxwell says. She remembers the days before cars, when horses provided the only means of transportation for workers from both neighborhoods commuting to their jobs and making deliveries.

“There was only one way in and out of Trot where the homes and lodgings were,” she says, “and when all the horses were moving, they were just trotting back and forth into that little community. Dust flying around all over the place. There were only seven houses in the Trot and a few others scattered around, but most of the African-American homes were in Sticktown. So much activity in that little place called Trot because workers were always coming and going from there.”

Despite their humble beginnings, Prospect alumni are quick to point out that despite the conditions of their education, it paid off in the school’s legacy. People who went on to all kinds of professions graduated from Prospect, and that fact was not lost on any of the reunion participants.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think those little African-American children up there on that hill would ever amount to anything,” says Watterson. “But we are still here. Our alumni are still around and we are passing that pride on to our young ones. Our history is also the history of Gate City.

“This is a wonderful reunion,” she continued, looking around to memorize faces in the group at Grogan Park, “for what few of us there are left.”

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