Unearthing Coffee County’s Stories Since 1836

by | Apr 2024

WE ARE still uncovering hundreds of years of history in Coffee County. At the Joanna Lewis Memorial Museum of Coffee County History, we travel back as far as 1836 — the year the county was founded. This museum, located within the Coffee County Historical Society, is a repository of significant artifacts. Even more so, it is a vessel carrying the diverse narratives that have shaped the community since its inception. 

Guided by passionate curator Bonnie Gamble, a retired parks and recreation director, and fellow volunteers Sandra McMullin Bennett and Carol Tat, the museum serves as a comprehensive chronicle of Coffee County history, embracing the experiences of all its residents. 

Hugh Doak’s photographic collection of negatives, a preserved treasure trove spanning decades, emphasizes the collaborative effort needed to piece together Coffee County’s history. 

This museum dedicates itself to shedding light on the untold stories of diverse community members. Uncover the story of prominent African American figures who defied the odds to open schools for Black children in Coffee County. 

Immerse yourself in the life and legacy of Crosby DeWitt “C.D.” Stamps, a visionary educator from Tullahoma who shaped generations of young minds. View his personal writings, trophies from championship-winning sports teams he coached, and student testimonials that paint a picture of his transformative impact. The C.D. Stamps Community Center symbolizes his impact on education in the region. 

The challenge of limited space in the old courthouse spurred the creation of mobile exhibits, taking history directly to schools. 

The voyage through history reveals fascinating details about the challenges of years past. In the early days, Black children traveled to school in wagons, a precursor to today’s bus routes. 

“We researched on Black education, which was very important here. We had two Rosenwald-funded schools. We touch on segregation and what that means in our exhibit that we take to the school children,” Gamble said. 

The museum’s journey to discovering the role of Black education in the region unveils the impact of Julius Rosenwald, former president of Sears. His collaboration with Booker T. Washington led to 5,000 schools established for Black students across the South. The exhibit touches on segregation and highlights the resilience and positive outcomes within the Black community, like the Rosenwald School in Manchester and Davidson Academy in Tullahoma. 

Step into the world of education advocacy. Explore documents and historic treasures that brought justice to women educators. As we travel through the decades of history lying within the museum’s four walls, a spotlight rests on the struggles faced by female teachers in the late ’20s and ’30s. The school board’s restrictive policies, favoring single or widowed women, reflect a male-dominated political landscape. 

This exploration is another critical part of the museum’s commitment to presenting a holistic view of Coffee County’s past. With March marking Women’s History Month, the museum celebrated another insightful exhibit. 

A rustic canteen from the Civil War stands sentinel in a glass case, its worn surface reflecting centuries of long marches and parched throats under the relentless sun. Each object, photograph, and document is a portal to the past. 

Listen closely, and you might hear the clinking of the canteen against a mess kit, the scratch of pen on paper as a soldier writes home, or the rustle of turning pages as a child loses themself in a worn book. 

In Gamble’s hands, these fragments of the past transform into powerful stories, reminding us that our history reflects the sum of countless individual experiences. 

“We have quite a few things people have donated from World War II. So [that includes] some really cool letters that were written between a girl here in Manchester and a soldier who was down here for maneuvers from New York.” 

Despite their limitations, Gamble remains optimistic about the museum’s potential. The future is promising for the museum, with a grant from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee for the school’s exhibit. Additionally, the State Board Programming Grant from the State Library and Archives helped purchase scanners for photo negatives, books, and documents. 

As time passes, Gamble hopes for a day when the museum becomes a hub for storytelling, is staffed adequately, and is open to the public. Uncovering the layers of history is an ongoing process, and the Joanna Lewis Memorial Museum of Coffee County History invites residents to contribute to the rich history of their past. Individuals can loan or donate artifacts, photographs, and stories for exhibitions. 

“I hope that we can present a more complete history through our artifacts, documents, and photographs of the history of Coffee County.” GN 

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