Andrews – Leslie McKinney is the type of man who doesn’t like to be the center of attention. In fact, he responds with a humble laugh if you mention any way he has helped serve the community.
He was a volunteer firefighter in town for 20 years, and through that worked on the annual Christmas parade with his wife, Marietta. He enjoyed getting to meet people, see people he didn’t get to see often and just help the community.
At the parade, McKinney loved giving candy to kids. Afterward, he enjoyed overhearing people talk about how much they loved the parade.
As a firefighter, he liked the opportunity to save homes that could have burned down.
“Anytime we could go to a fire and nobody got hurt was a good day,” McKinney said.
He volunteered in other ways in the community over the years, serving on boards and even coaching young children. He thinks he gets his desire to help from his mother, Marie McKinney.
“My mom was always like that,” McKinney said. “Helping people.”
Andrews was booming when McKinney was growing up. He grew up in the 1960s, when things were different.
His primary education was in a one-room schoolhouse, Andrews Colored/Negro Elementary School, studying with kids from grades 1-8.
After completing the school, those who could attended Allen High School in Asheville or at another school where black kids could attend. As his parents didn’t have the money to send him away, he, along with his cousin Clayton, became the first kids to integrate the all-white Andrews High School.
McKinney clearly remembers his first day of school, but prefers not to talk about it. He said his primary school did not prepare him academically for Andrews High.
“It was like daylight and dark,” he said. “Those kids were so ahead of me … it was like going to a new world for me.”
McKinney had some bad teachers but some good teachers, too, like Hoyt Lunsford, Lester Stove, Ruth Kyker, Ruth Pullium and Jean Christy. Ruth Sursavage was like a mom to him.
When he went home after school, his parents were not educated enough to help him with his schoolwork. He did have college-educated sisters, but most of the time he had to figure lessons out himself or work with classmates in study hall. Some of those kids he could tell had never been around black kids before.
He said a lot of stuff about school was bad, but a lot of stuff was good, too.
“If it wasn’t for football, I probably would have quit,” McKinney said.
“Football was everything in Andrews,” he said. “There were so many great players.”
McKinney joined the varsity team his freshman year, and played safety, tailback and punt returner. He said the other players were good to him, but during the school day they were all separated as they were in different classes. Coach Hugh Hamilton was one of his early supporters.
He still remembers his first touchdown. Gary Morgan threw a 20-yard fly pass to him.
“It was like the world dropped,” McKinney said.
His senior year, his teammates voted him co-captain.
“It felt great,” McKinney said. “It was just an honor for me to be on the team.”
He was a member of the Wildcats’ 1967 Smoky Mountain Conference Championship and Class A Far Western Championship team. In an undefeated season, Andrews beat Murphy in the Smoky Mountain Championship. He enjoyed the rivalry between the two teams.
There were only a few other teams that had black players then. Some opponents treated him well, while others “treated you like you were black.” His teammates were even called names by opponents for having a black teammate and friend.
In addition to football, he ran track, played baseball and participated in basketball for two years. He still goes to Andrews football games and continues to enjoy the rivalry with Murphy.
He and his cousin graduated from Andrews High in 1970. He humbly thought about how he and his cousin opened the doors for other black children in the community, noting that things have gotten a lot better since then.
“I think we broke the ice a little bit,” McKinney said.
He has two grown children, Cody and Danielle, who had challenges of their own as mixed-race students in school. His wife of 43 years, Marietta, is white, which made their relationship hard at first.
“We had to sneak around,” he said. “That’s just the way it was.”
He entered the workforce after graduation, eventually landing at District Memorial Hospital and then Murphy Medical Center, where he was a maintenance engineer. He said he met a lot of interesting people at the hospitals and made a lot of friends in those 38 years.
“I liked the job,” McKinney said. “It was different from day to day.”
He enjoyed that it was a place of caring, a place where he got to take care of people.
“I try to help people where I can,” he said.