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An American Literary Landscape: Life, History, and Memory in Putnam County, Georgia

The University of Georgia’s Willson Center for Humanities and Arts is working with high school administrators, educators, and students to explore the life of Alice Walker and the world where she grew up in Putnam County, Georgia.

A Putnam County Charter School System student conducts an oral history interview with Putnam County resident Mr. Melton Smith at the 2017 Butler-Baker Alumni Festival. Image courtesy the Willson Center for the Humanities.

The project is grounded in the research and exhibition of a collection of 200 photographic negatives depicting African American life in Putnam County around 1940. As Walker was born in 1944, the images in the collection of the National Archives depict the people and places that made up her world: the generations of her grandparents, her parents, and her peers. The first phase of the project will involve working with Putnam County High School students to research and display these images in an exhibition to be held in Putnam County. Willson Center Director Nicholas Allen sees potential for using these images to connect with current residents and landscapes. “As few families move into or out of Putnam County,” Allen notes, “we expect to be able to identify many of the individuals and locations in the images, to make contemporary photographs of the sites, and to conduct related oral history interviews.”

The Willson Center has partnered with the University of Georgia’s Oral History Archivist and the Richard B. Russell Library to train Putnam County High School students to conduct the oral history interviews. The interviews will provide critical insight into the region’s history and literature from the students’ neighbors who lived through segregation and the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

“Education is critical to the future of Georgia’s rural counties”

The Willson Center will reach broader audiences in two ways: first, by creating and implementing a K-12 curriculum around the images and oral histories collected in partnership with the University of Georgia College of Education and the Putnam County Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum; second, through a collaboration with award-winning Georgia playwright Josiah Watts. Watts wrote The Sapelo Project, a performance inspired by the language, stories, and culture of his native Sapelo Island. Together with Putnam faculty and students, Watts will use the collected images, oral histories, and the writings of Putnam County other literary greats—Walker and Joel Chandler Harris—to create a performance piece that embodies Putnam County.

Building Relationships in Putnam County, Georgia

The Putnam County project continues the Willson Center’s longstanding involvement with the region and its charter school system.

In 2015, Alice Walker served as the Delta Visiting Chair for Global Understanding at the University of Georgia. To prepare for Walker’s tenure, the Putnam County High School integrated lessons on the region’s history and literature into its curriculum. For a select group of students, the year of learning culminated with meeting Walker in Athens. The visit began a larger conversation with Walker about “the literary tapestry of Putnam County,” Allen explains.

In 2017, the Willson Center expanded on this work with a day of public history programming focused on Walker and Harris. The day focused on supporting the community to tell its own stories by empowering them to digitize documents and photographs, collect oral histories, and share local music and readings from Walker and Harris connected with Putnam County.

An American Literary Landscape: Life, History, and Memory in Putnam County, Georgia will continue to amplify the Willson Center’s impact in rural Georgia, connecting generations of citizens through the humanities. “Education is critical to the future of Georgia’s rural counties,” Allen says. “Our program is designed to engage students with applied humanistic learning through the history of their own community.”

Banner image: Putnam County resident Mrs. Georgia Benjamin Smith, speaks with Putnam County Charter School System students at the Uncle Remus Museum, Eatonton, GA in 2016. Image courtesy the Willson Center for the Humanities.

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