In my memory, I’m sitting next to Renita Green and we are best of friends. We share giant SweeTarts, a favorite but rare treat we both loved, by breaking them in half—or quarters to share with our surrounding classmates. In my memory, my class is racially balanced. However, there I am, fifth row down, with my first-grade smile and thrilled to be at school dress, surrounded by a sea of white faces. This, I know today, isn’t what desegregation looks like.
Despite countless moves (across the Atlantic Ocean and back again—twice), I still have all of my, battered but intact, school yearbooks titled, “The Forest Log.” Inspired by a photograph from the Bettmann Archive of two schoolgirls on a bus with linked arms, I began to interrogate my memory of my education in light of current events and historical research.
There is my mother, a 25-year-old math teacher—who worked in this relatively new school. There is the courtyard which was sparsely planted with azalea bushes and a central flagpole where every morning the flag raising was celebrated in a ceremony. And there is a change, over the years, in the faces of my classmates. Those well-traveled yearbooks have become my document—over the life of a grade-school-to-junior-high girl—of how my school system truly integrated from 1967 to 1976.
Alabama schools were “officially“ desegregated in 1954 with the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483), and yet, due to a campaign of massive resistance, schools did not meaningfully integrate until over a decade later.
By 1967, when I was that wide-eyed first grader, I somehow believed that the schools were being integrated that year. But the yearbooks tell a different story.
There is my third-grade year in Mrs. Hicks’ class when, I believed, our city started a school busing program. In my memory, it was exciting that we were getting more students who “got to ride busses.” I was eight years old and desperately wanted to ride a bus too. Such is privilege; it is a hidden-in-plain-sight sort of acceptance that your point of view is the only one. But, my yearbooks, again, tell a different story.
It isn’t until my fifth-grade year that things start to change in the yearbook and by seventh-grade, the racial balance feels more reflective of what was, most likely, our community at that time. I’ve written, “Ugh” over my own photo. Ugh, indeed. How did I so clearly rewrite my own history? And yet, that is the nature of history and memory. Sitting here, years later, I can see that, in many ways, we as a state, as a country have imagined a narrative of racial progress. While schools in the Shoals and across the state indeed did integrate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alabama schools have resegregated in many places. In my own community today, a centralized school system from Middle School forward serves all students.
These battered yearbooks have been a hidden-in-plain-sight place for me to start to dismantle and complicate my understanding of my own history—and its effects on the present.
This work has begun. In February of this year, Hank Klibanoff, a Shoals native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist, professor, and the host of the Peabody Award-winning podcast Buried Truths, co-hosted an evening of storytelling at our local library with journalist Sherhonda Allen, which included stories of busing, school integration, and more, called “Civil Rights in the Shoals.” It was, indeed, an evening of dismantling history. You can listen to the event soon by subscribing to Buried Truths. Listening to stories of black neighbors and their memories of school integration challenged and enriched my own memories and my own story.
As I think about myself as that first grader, I think of all I didn’t know, and all that I still don’t know. I don’t have answers for how to move forward as a human or as a business. What I know is that the first step is to take out our beliefs and memories and dust them off to be sure that they are straight and true and include other perspectives on the past. Second, and most importantly, is to go fearlessly, and humbly, into conversations about my role and the role of our business in the community, with the understanding that we will make mistakes. But we are committed to persisting into the work.
Hopefully, we’ve begun this work with Project Threadways. The goal of this project is to “accurately and respectfully retell the story of textiles—from farm to finished product—and the way the act of making textiles shaped the lives of communities and the individuals of those communities.” In partnership with the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, we collect oral histories, analyze and publish data, and stage events that serve as centers for conversation, exploring the connection between community and the evolving region through the lens of material culture. For today, I’ve been thinking of the material culture of my Forest Logs, those histories and memories, as we move ahead.
Founder/ Creative Director
Alabama Chanin and Project Threadways
P.S: Project Threadways was inspired by the Southern Foodways Alliance who recently took this stand:
Founded in 1999 by a purposefully diverse group of Southerners, SFA works to bridge divides in a long-divided region. Early on, founders Lolis Eric Elie and the late John Egerton wrote an open letter to our board of directors, challenging passivity and disabusing SFA of assumptions that “reconciliation will take place naturally, without premeditation, among people of goodwill, and that silence is an indication that all is well.” They disagreed, writing, “It is too easy to slip into the comfortable assumption that if no one is talking about racial inequities, they no longer exist.”
People are talking now. SFA aims to listen. The SFA stands with our colleagues and compatriots engaged in protest. The Southern Foodways Alliance pledges to make change by taking antiracist stances and doing work that protects and values and uplifts our Black brothers and sisters.
Lead image: Natalie’s First-grade photo on row five in The Forest Log, the Forest Hills School yearbook, 1967-1968.