The Coffee County Memory Project is an audio/visual and performing arts project. Primary source material includes audio recordings of over 100 individuals who experienced the period of federally mandated school integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Photographs, newspaper articles, and other documents supplement these oral histories.
What sets the Coffee County Memory Project apart is its intimate scale. In communities like Coffee County, all segments of society directly depended on each other economically - the farmer on the farm worker, the custodian on the business that employed him or her. Yet this otherwise tightly knit society had been woven on the loom of racial segregation. Integration was seen as an irreparable ripping of the social fabric, a fundamental and threatening change to a generally accepted way of life, a government-mandated revolution in social structure and process. It affected not only the relationships between whites and blacks but – more intriguingly, perhaps - the relationships among citizens of the black community and among citizens of the white community. Thanks to its extensive database of oral histories, the Coffee County Memory Project is uniquely able to capture these nuances at the community level.
Intraracial strife, disagreements within the white and black communities, is another reason there has been little documentation of the integration process in small rural communities. Many of our interviewees were initially reluctant to revisit these memories because they are still in contact and working with members of the community with whom they had strong differences of opinion during this seminal period. When informed about this project, a potential interviewee asked, “Why do you want to stir all that up again?” A few key interviewees took their time – over two years – to decide to participate. Others requested to contribute their memories privately with no one present in the room as they spoke. Many participants chose to remain anonymous.
As our interviewees shared their personal stories of coming to terms with this profound social change, a complex story emerged along with a significant discovery - intimate involvement in the events of the time in no way guaranteed clear understanding of what was actually taking place. An individual’s understanding was dependent on the sector of the community in which he or she lived. It was possible to be deeply involved in one aspect of the integration process while remaining completely ignorant of other events taking place simultaneously.
Our purpose is to tell the complete story for the first time, and by doing so, attempt a kind of “Truth and Reconciliation”.