JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Phedelma Hancock remembers spending many a fall afternoon watching the Langston High School marching band as it practiced ahead of its vaunted Friday night performances.
The band would march from Langston past her home near Myrtle Avenue and Welbourne Street, making its way downtown for a show no one wanted to miss.
“People stayed no matter how cold it was, they stayed there until they could see them do their routine because they had something different and fantastic every time,” Hancock said.
“Going into seventh grade I was headed straight for that band. I was headed straight for it.”
Hancock, then Phedelma Turner, was looking forward to being part of that tradition as she attended Douglass Elementary in east Johnson City in the early ’60s. But integration was working its way across the south, and that never happened.
Instead, Hancock went straight from sixth grade at Douglass to a newly integrated North Junior High in the fall of 1965. She was joined by Jerry Bundy, who came from Dunbar Elementary.
“I’m getting ready to go where my father went and thinking maybe I can make a small legacy there as well,” Bundy said. “And then all of a sudden there was integration, and yes, it had a kind of bittersweet with me.”
Six years later they would graduate from Science Hill — the first group of black Hilltopper grads never to attend the 7th-12th grade Langston, which closed after 72 years of operation just before they entered seventh grade.
The pair shared their remembrances of integration and being part of that pioneering class who spent their entire junior high and high school careers at integrated Johnson City schools.
Bundy, who owns his own business in Atlanta and has 13 grandchildren and even a great-grandchild, remembers what he called a “bittersweet” experience for it not including Langston — a centerpiece in the lives of black Johnson Citians working to be their fullest selves in an age of segregation.
Hancock, who worked for a couple decades at a clothing plant in Johnson City before pursuing a second career as a massage therapist, said the experience was a mixed bag.
Johnson City’s black community lost a pillar of its togetherness, but people like her and Bundy gained experiences they wouldn’t trade for a segregated society — and they say it’s only gotten better in the wake of their experiences in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Bundy had looked forward to following in his father’s footsteps and representing Langston on the basketball court and football field.
Instead, he headed to North, an awkward seventh grader going to meet with a bunch of other awkward seventh graders who had the added challenge of being the first group together, black and white.
Bundy said it wasn’t a cup of tea. For her part, Hancock wondered what it would be like not joining that Langston band. Would her cornet-playing skills be accepted and recognized at this big new school?
It turned out the answer was yes. Hancock’s fellow band members encouraged her to try out for the top chair in the junior high band, and she got it.
“I was the only female as well as the only black female in my band group,” she said. “Everyone else, they were white males, and everybody was very embracing and welcoming. I never had anything said that would be a bad thing to say.
“I think they were wanting to feel as welcome with us as we felt with them, and I never came up against any bad names or anyone wouldn’t sit near me.”
Bundy also began to fit in with athletics a runway for him — but he said those first days weren’t easy or natural feeling for anyone, and Hancock agreed.
“The first day I went it was just kind of horrifying,” Bundy said. “You know, you heard a lot of different things hollered at you and stuff, it’s the n-word,” Bundy said. “But for the most part the kids seemed to get along fairly well once they started getting to know each other.”
Hancock said the uncertainty was almost certainly mutual.
“You don’t know what to expect, and you don’t know how other people are going to receive you and I’m sure they felt the same way,” she said.
By high school Hancock had encountered family tragedies, including the death of her grandmother Gracie Ford, who had raised her to that point.
She dropped out of band after her sophomore year. “I was devastated and I really couldn’t focus on things,” she said.
That left her without a strong extracurricular connection. She watched as some good things happened at Science Hill, but she said her better memories are of friendships with white girls she made in junior high.
“There were several who we got to be friends, and it was a real good experience,” Hancock said. “I have to say, when I attended Science Hill there were some setbacks.”
The black girls weren’t allowed to join the all-white social clubs like OptiMiss and Civinettes — at least not yet. They formed their own club, the Proto-Ettes.
“No one treated me bad or anything,” Hancock said. “I think it was just mainly wanting to participate in some things that were already in place at Science Hill prior to the black students going there, some of which we just couldn’t be involved in.”
Bundy was finding great success on the basketball court and making good friends, including teammate Preston Campbell — who he also attended church with at Watauga Avenue Presbyterian.
“We became good friends and I followed his success as a doctor, spoke with him a couple times through the years,” Bundy said.
The two were a dual threat for coach Elvin Little’s 27-2 Hilltopper team their senior year. Bundy’s success at Science Hill translated into college scholarships, first to play at Western Kentucky and then at University of Tennessee Chattanooga.
The two never met after adulthood although Campbell’s daughter was a student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, but Bundy did meet up several times with an upperclassman he played with, Tommy Cox.
“He was an attorney here in Atlanta,” Bundy said. “He and I actually had lunch a lot of times after I moved to Atlanta and we’d talk about coach Little. As a matter of fact he connected me back with the coach. We had some good times.”
Bundy said all in all, he had a good experience at Science Hill.
“The spirit of the school, when it came to unifying, and ‘hey, we’re gonna beat this team, or we’re gonna be the best band … or we’re going to be do the best we can at whatever.”
They certainly wouldn’t trade the opportunity to have gone to Science Hill for segregated schools, and Hancock and Bundy both say they feel they paved the way for a better quality of education and integrated life for their own kids.
“My son had a lot better environment in school than I had,” Bundy said. “When I told him about some of the things that I went through, he was like, ‘gosh, Dad — I can’t believe it was like that,’ because by the time he came through you know, you had interracial dating and all of that was accepted, whereas in my era that was not heard of.”
Hancock said that greater sense of ease was in part due to her, Bundy and other young parents in the 1970s and 1980s raising children who never knew anything but an integrated environment. That includes Hancock’s daughter, who went to Science Hill.
“They had the chance to ease into that comfortably — I think a little more comfortably than my generation,” Hancock said.
Bundy said he really takes his cues from his grandmother, who was a devout Christian and always urged him to look at people as children of God, not someone of a particular skin tone or personality quirk.
“I was brought up in the church and to love and respect — that was a big thing with my grandmother,” Bundy said.
“I always reflect to say, well gosh, people just, they have their own what I call uniqueness,” Bundy said. “We have our jealousies, we have our different perspectives that we go through and emotions of just being human beings.
“And all of a sudden you’re with another group of people you don’t really know and you’re starting to learn all their different perspectives of emotions too.”
But Langston High School was part of the glue that really held Johnson City’s black community together, and both say it was bittersweet thing when integration occurred. They say they wish some elements of the Langston days could be experienced by their children or grandchildren — or could have been by them — without of course trading things back for a segregated life.
“That unity that we had in those days, because we were surviving a very harsh, critical environment,” Bundy said. “You know, not actually being accepted as you really were, so you’re always trying to prove, or not so much prove, but build that self-worth.”
Hancock has watched with appreciation and gladness as the Langston Education and Arts Development Committee has worked with city leaders on the renovation of Langston’s gym and its rebirth as the Langston Centre.
“I think our young people need to know, that’s what we did have, and some of the history on the way that school was and the learning, the teaching, the lessons, the band and all those things,” Hancock said.
“There were some wonderful teachers that I was ready to be part of their classrooms, but it didn’t come to pass — but you know, we moved in, we made ourselves comfortable the best we could and we proceeded with what our focus was and succeeded with that, and so that’s a win I think.”