Making A House A Home: Sharing the Evers Story with Keena Graham
Keena Graham always knew she wanted to wear the uniform of the National Park Service since she was 13 years old, growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
What she's come to learn, though, as Superintendent of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, is that the outfit holds so much more meaning in the quest to preserve the history of one of the Civil Rights Movement's most influential families and stories.
At just after midnight on June 12, 1963, activist, WWII veteran, and devoted husband and father Medgar Evers was assassinated in the home's carport that he shared with his wife, Myrlie Evers, and their three young children in a quiet neighborhood in Jackson. His death was the first murder of a nationally significant leader of the Civil Rights Movement, heightening public awareness of civil rights issues and becoming a motivation for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Elected as the first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi in 1955, Medgar worked with Myrlie and countless others for the advancement and dignity of African Americans in the civil rights struggle. He helped facilitate school desegregation and voter registration and took the lead in investigating racially motivated murders throughout the American South and nation. One issue that was deeply personal to him and Myrlie's hearts, though, was mentoring young people.
"The big thing about Medgar and Myrlie Evers is that they wanted to mentor the youth, and not just to mentor the youth, but the fact that they were so young themselves," Graham said. "When Evers experienced and was conscious of racism itself, he was such a young person. He witnessed his father's best friend being lynched and had to learn some hard lessons early on. And that's incredibly sad that he had to experience that at such a young age. The same thing with Miss Myrlie having those experiences herself so young. Hearing the N-word and being friends with somebody who was white, but then just like that, they're calling her the N-word."
"What I want people to know, for kids to know, is that for [the Evers], they realized themselves that racism and those things are learned and can be unlearned," Graham said. "That you can have power and kindness, that you don't have to wait to be an adult to unlearn those things, and to be a loving adult, a loving human being, at any age."
For a monument that carries such solemnity and weight regarding the Civil Rights movement, Graham loves to share the heartwarming moments of the Evers' household - stories of a family who embraced everyday life in Jackson, who loved their community, their church, and their neighbors.
"I love the stories [from Rena Evers-Everette, Medgar and Myrlie Evers' daughter] about how their dad was a prankster, a big kid at heart. This neighborhood was just one big playground for them. He loved to play with the kids, not just his children but the neighbors' kids, and one of his favorite things to do with them was to play hide-and-go-seek. So, you can imagine all the kids running around playing hide-and-go-seek, and then he would go out there and just run around and try to find them. And when he would find them, he would do this thing with his eyelids where he could flip them up, and he would find them and scare them like that," Graham says, laughing.
She's also shared somber moments with visitors, getting to sit with them while they pay respects to the Evers family. This juxtaposition of sweetness and pain makes 2332 Margaret West Alexander Drive infinitely more than a house - it's a physical reminder of all the lives affected and lost in the pursuit of justice and equality. She recalls a time when she ran into a gentleman who was visiting from out of state and how that moment continues to affect how she views the importance of her role.
"One of the things [in this business] that you try to do is assess the situation and figure out when's the right time to talk and when it's not," Graham said. "He had flowers, and I just thought, 'This is not the right time to speak.' He got out of an Uber and laid the flowers down on the carport. He looked at the home, looked around, and bowed his head. And then he was looking up in the sky before turning around to get back in the car. That's when I decided to speak and asked, 'Sir, did you have any questions?' And he said, 'No, I had a layover at the airport, between flights. I decided to take an Uber before I left to pay my respects. I had to do it. I knew the house was closed, but I had to do it.' That was very impactful to me."
Even though the home is still closed to the public, Keena encourages visitors to take in the house from the outside and tour the city of Jackson and immerse themselves in the places that Medgar and Myrlie breathed life into and continue to this day.
"Jackson is such a microcosm of American history and in the story of America," Graham said. "That's one of the reasons why I'm hoping to develop a shuttle tour. So that people can see and have this experience of how [Medgar] and Miss Myrlie operated within the city."
"When you go to Farish Street, [that district] was already developed before anybody knew the Evers' name, and it was thriving, you know, it had shops and had the [Alamo Theater]. It would be wonderful for visitors to get a sense of how that operated and how it was influential to the Black community - Jackson State University, what was going on there as an institution of higher learning, and Tougaloo College. Those places are very important to the story of Medgar and Myrlie, as well as Millsaps, where they had integrated meetings. To feel this city, it's significant to their influence and their story that continues today."
To learn more about visitation and programming, visit the official sites for the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument and The Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute.