Soul Sessions Podcast: Gwen Harmon
Museum veteran Gwen Harmon is “new” to Jackson, but she’s not new to the Civil Rights story.
Harmon relocated here from Florida in the summer of 2021 to take on the role of Director at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in the Farish Street Historic District. She grew up in Mississippi and lived in Jackson previously, working at WLBT.
The Mississippi native spent 15 years at National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis as Director of Marketing, Public Relations and Governmental Relations. It’s where she said she was bit by the “museum bug.”
As the Director of the “small but mighty” Smith Robertson Museum, Harmon’s role is to showcase the museum’s moments of the Civil Rights movement about Jackson and Jacksonians.
Harmon talks with Soul Sessions host Paul Wolf in today's episode.
Note: Soul Sessions is produced as a podcast first and designed to be listened to. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes the emotion and inflection meant to be conveyed by human voice. Our transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
PAUL: This is Soul Sessions: conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi.
I’m your host, Paul Wolf, bringing you a look at the people, places and events that make us the City With Soul. And on today’s show, the director of the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in the Farish Street Historic District of Jackson. Gwen says their small but mighty museum is a great starting place to discover more about the Civil Rights story in Jackson, Mississippi.
Gwen Harmon is the Director of the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center. Thanks so much for being here today.
GWEN: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
PAUL: I want to know a little more about you; give us just a glimpse - and about the work you do at Smith Robertson Museum
GWEN: Well, I am a Mississippian. I um was born and raised in Montgomery County, Mississippi, about an hour and a half from Jackson. I came to Jackson to attend Jackson State University and started my career here. In my adult life, got married here started a family here, worked in media in the in the Mississippi, the Jackson Mississippi marketplace for a number of years and then I left in the nineties and I've returned after that long hiatus. 've returned about nine months ago to come in as the Director of the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center. I've had an extremely, you know, pleasant career. I've worked in museum industry before coming to Jackson, back to Smith Robertson. I was in Memphis Tennessee for fifteen years as Director of Marketing and Governmental Affairs for the National Civil Rights Museum there. So, yeah back here now at home. I consider Jackson my home and it's nice to be back home.
PAUL: The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is such an impactful museum, but we were we were talking earlier… Smith Robertson, it's a city owned museum and it's one of those underutilized, overlooked gems of the city. Why is it so special?
GWEN: You know everyone says that who visits for the first time. They say, ‘I stumbled on you. I was on Yelp and somebody mentioned things we need to do and when you're in Jackson and I found you and I'm so glad I did.' This is a, you know, it's small but it's so impactful. I think what it does, it doesn't overwhelm visitors. And we are two floors, it takes about an hour and a half to tour from start to finish, and it highlights those persons from Mississippi who were such a strong part of the civil rights movement in Jackson and in Mississippi, but who also impacted the national movement. And so I think when people come into the Smith Robertson Museum for the first time or even second or third time; it’s sense of home, it's a sense of connecting with those characters in our exhibit space that they maybe have heard about but they feel very much connected to them as human beings because they represent the everyday man and woman, who just got up one day and said, ‘You know, I’m… I want to join this movement. I want to take a stand’ who want to make a difference for my children. And the beauty of that is those people's children are still here. You know it's amazing for them to come for relative, to come the museum and say, ‘Oh that was my teacher from the wall or that was my…
PAUL: Oh wow.
GWEN: …mom's best friend’ and that's like coming home. It's like a reunion and you know how family reunions are in Mississippi; you know, anybody's welcome and you've… you are part of the family because you're there. So I think that's the beauty of the Smith Robertson.
PAUL: Yeah, especially special from for the Smith Roberton in Jackson is the legacy of Medgar and Myrlie Evers: you have a special exhibit - one of the most extensive - dedicated to them, correct?
GWEN: It is, it is. I’m really very proud of that exhibit space. It's it's the one Ithink that really tugs on the emotional strings, talking about a young man from his childhood in Decatur, Mississippi, all the way up to his death here in Jackson, Mississippi. And along that route during the exhibit space, patriots get to learn about him as a child, as a young man, a young husband and father, and then as an icon. People may not know some things about him that we want to share in an exhibit space and i think that's important for them to know they know that Medgar was the first field secretary of NAACP and they know that he was assassinated in his home in Jackson, Mississippi. But they don't know a lot about him as a young college student, a veteran who got his college degree, who played football in college. He was on the debate team… who he was, just a… he was like the renaissance man of his day. He was Joe college and Joe cool at the same time and still he had a burning passion to make a difference. He could have just sit on and just do my job you know get a degree get married and be quiet, but he just had this burning desire to make a difference. He always felt he was destined for something more and I think they learn that when they go to the exhibit at the Smith Robertson Museum
PAUL: There’s a lot to learn at Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in the Farish Street historic district. You told me there are programs coming up where we can experience that history up close and personal during Black History Month, during February. Tell me more about that.
GWEN: Yeah, we're very excited to launch Black History Month 2022 with a special program we call Living History every Friday in February from 9:30 am – 1 pm. Our visitors will get a chance to experience living history characters brought to life with the tremendous talents of the Jackson State University theater and drama department who will take on some of the characters of some of our exhibit space. And that's all I want to share because it's a nice little surprise “a-ha” moment for people who've never done a living history experience. So I want them to come and just soak it up. They're gonna walk away learning so much more about the history of some of the people as they were part of the movement and who were a part of Smith Robertson’s Museum history which they may not know as well. They didn't know a lot of people, don't know that it was not always a museum; it was actually the Smith Robertson School for colored students started by a former slave. So we'll walk them from that point all the way through the 1960s and living history is amazing. So we encourage people to come on Friday in February and to come and experience that tour. If you wanna bring your Sunday school class or a classroom or just friends and family, call and reserve some space and we make sure that we get you the ultimate experience and not be too crowded. But yeah I think they'll walk away with a whole new sense of history and a different way to make learning more fun and more immersive.PAUL: We'll put links to that program in our show notes. Now of course I can't let you get away from here without a little fun in Jackson, something you might do in your off time: if you had 24 hours to show off the city to your family and friends, show them your Jackson, where would you take them?
GWEN: Well I’ve got to go back to where I started, my brain power, that's my my alma mater, Jackson State University in the central part of downtown Jackson. And it's so funny, because when I was a student there, my girlfriendsand I used to walk from campus, believe it or not, to the Woolworth store downtown. And we know the history of Woolworth’s lunch counter. So this was in the 70s after the aftermath of all the sit-ins. We would walk there as college students to buy food. I would definitely take them to the stadium. We have a really great football stadium. I would drive to some of the most iconic neighborhoods. People don't know Jackson Mississippi as we know, what they see it in the movies portrayed as these neighborhoods that are torn down and houses or shanties. And, you know, no culture and no class and no sense of pride. We have some tremendous neighborhoods here that represent the best of Jackson. I would show them some of the architectural designs. I would take them to Fondren. I think Fondren is our new hip place, and it's got a, you know, tremendous restaurants and shopping and a sense of just community. You can just park your car and walk from shop to shop or, you know, restaurant to restaurant. So I love Fondren.
PAUL: Gwen, what makes Jackson, Mississippi so special to you?
GWEN: I could sound very cliche and say that people… everybody says it about their hometown, about their city. I moved away from her over thirty years ago and the reason I moved back thirty years later, it's because there were people still here from thirty years ago that I felt still connected to, who hadn't changed, who had moved and I didn't have to do any kind of revamping in my own life. It was like I had been gone a couple of months and Icame back and started reconnecting with people. So it's the people who stayed. You know there's an exhibit called “Those Who Stayed”: the people who stay in Jackson are special. They make the city what it is. They haven't given up. They're determined to see positive change and they welcome everybody it's like a family reunion. They welcome everybody with open arms and love and they want to teach others about the history of Jackson Mississippi. They want to educate others about the strong attributes that we have as a city and and people who care.
I’ve been… I’ve lived in several places: I've lived in Chicago and Florida and you know Memphis, of course, and whenever I mention… and proudly say that I’m in Mississippi, people who've never been have this look of ‘Oh, you what? Mississippi? I could never go there.’ And I said, well, I would always ask why? ‘Oh the racism, the judgmental, you know, the backwards thinking.’ And I said, you know, racism does not stop it state boundaries and I can name you five high profile racial cases right now that didn't happen in Mississippi. And we have to teach people that Mississippians… we have to stand up and say, ‘George Floyd was not killed in mississippi, Trayvon Martin was not murdered…’ If you go down the road, yeah, we have a history of that, but because I think our history's so rich in that we don't shy away from it, we approach it, we attack it, and we want to change it instead of run away from it and hide from it and pretend it never happened. So Mississippians are proud to be Mississippians and that's why I said that people make the difference. In Jackson, we're proud to be Jacksonians and we will stop you when you get a little bit too negative. You know, we can say it cause it's home and it's family, but you're not from here.
Let me tell you the real the real points of interest when it comes to being a Jacksonian and living in this community and we have to maintain that sense of pride. Nobody's going to do it for us and the people who do come for the first time and leave, they are amazed at the food, amazed at the hospitality… you know, the easy living, the stress free living, the management of just having your life… you control it. You don't have to sit in traffic for 45 minutes a day, trying to get to a job or just to go to the store, you know. They like that and it's affordable right now which is very important even though everything is skyrocketing nationwide. But living here is still pretty much affordable. So I'd say it's the wonderful people who have not given up, those who stayed.
PAUL: Gwen, we'll put links to you and your work in our show notes for this episode. The director of the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center right here in Jackson, Mississippi: Gwen Harmon thanks so much for being here today.
GWEN: Thank you! It was my pleasure. Looking forward to more of these in the near future.
PAUL: Soul Sessions is a production of Visit Jackson. Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Rickey Thigpen. To learn more about our organization and mission, head to visit jackson dot com. I’m your host, Paul Wolf – and you’ve been listening to Soul Sessions.