- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - More than 110 people sat silent and still one Saturday night earlier this month, listening to Ron Coffin tell of his time as a Maryville High School student 50 years ago.

He told of walking to school with a police escort, blue lights flashing. Of waiting in the principal’s office while most of the rest of the student body was in assembly “to pray and read the Scripture,” then being escorted into a class and pointed to a single vacant seat, right up front next to the teacher’s desk.

“So you had to walk . in front of all the students in the class to that one seat,” Coffin told them, “and listen to the catcalls and whatever” - spitting motions, taunts about “smelling monkeys,” glares.

One of five black students to integrate Maryville High in September 1963, Coffin was never in a class there with another black student. “One black person per class,” he said.

And, given a choice at the time, Coffin would have preferred someone else have had the experience of changing history in his place. For all the greater educational opportunities Maryville High afforded him, he went from all-black Hale High, where he was loved and encouraged, to a place where he was “at best, tolerated,” he said - “assimilation,” rather than true “integration,” which would have meant bringing teachers and administrators from Hale to Maryville High.

But “we were just ordinary people, really, moving in God’s time to effect extraordinary change,” Coffin said.

Coffin’s stories, and those of four other students who integrated Maryville High and 15 who integrated Alcoa High, are among those Dorothy Kincaid, Charles Pride and Jo Davenport hoped to preserve when they began in 2008 interviewing people about the black experience in Blount County. To date, the friends, working as “CDJ Media Productions,” have videoed about 70 interviews, with around 30 now edited and ready for viewing. They also have a “Blount County Black History” Facebook page.

That Saturday night event at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in the Hall community of Alcoa was a chance to not only mark 50 years since local integration, but also to look to the future: The trio announced Berea College in Kentucky will be archiving the interviews they’ve completed, plus more that will be done, in “Special Collections and Archives” in its Hutchins Library.

“Years from now, if someone wants to know what was it like, really like, to live in Blount County, they can find out,” said Professor Andrew Baskin, an Alcoa native and now an associate professor of African and African-American studies at Berea, which was the first coeducational and racially integrated college in the Southern United States.

“We’re going to make sure this history is preserved. We are going to make sure it is always available, for your children, and their children.”

Kincaid grew up in the Hall community of Alcoa, at a time the still-predominantly black community was all black, a “company” community where most residents worked at the Aluminum Company of America. The community was insular by necessity, she said; it had its own stores, its own churches, its own first-through-12th-grade school, named for Charles Martin Hall, the founder of what is now Alcoa Inc. It had its own police department, though officers’ jurisdiction was limited to blacks in that community.

“I never went to the local theater,” Kincaid said. “My father wouldn’t let me go outside the (Hall) community.”

There are many achievements to document, said Zenobia Toney, 77, who remembers a childhood before television, when families “sat around the fire and heard the good old stories of how far we’d come and how we got there.”

Now those stories won’t be told to younger people without a concerted effort, she said: “We don’t have enough written history, especially about Alcoa and the part blacks played in the building of it.”

Toney personally doesn’t remember much racial tension within the community. Her house, on a “black street,” backed up to a “white street,” and her best friend, whose house backed up to hers, was white.

“We couldn’t wait to get home every afternoon so we could play,” she said. “It never occurred to us to wonder why we went to different schools.”

But others older and younger remember hurtful times, such as the Ku Klux Klan riding “every Saturday night” during parts of the 1960s, Kincaid said.

“In 1964, I was the first black to integrate the Blount County Election Commission,” she said. “The Klan burned a cross on my parents’ lawn. It was rough.”

Kincaid and Pride have encountered some resistance to their oral history project, “Appalachian Blount County Black History As Told By Those Who Lived It Then and Now,” both from whites who want to gloss over unpleasant parts of history and blacks who still find it too painful to talk about.

“But we did it because we want to preserve our history,” Kincaid said. “We didn’t want revisionists to come in and tell our history for us.”

That history will inform the future, Pride said.

“This was a struggle,” he said, “and the struggle is not over. There are still a lot of things to be done.”

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