Soul Sessions Podcast: Keena Graham
It's been almost 60 years since civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in his Jackson driveway.
Today, I'm talking with the superintendent of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, Keena Graham. She has a powerful way of looking at what history can teach us. And, showing that working together really does work (and, she tells us when you can now take tours!)
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Paul: It's been almost 60 years since civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in his Jackson driveway. And, when we look back, it's really important that we look forward because his legacy lives on in the City With Soul.
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Paul: Hey. It's Paul Wolf with a front row seat to conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi. We call this podcast Soul Sessions. It's the people, places and events that make the City With Soul shine. Today, I'm talking with the superintendent of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, Keena Graham. She has a powerful way of looking at what history can teach us. And, working together really does work. Here's my conversation with Keena.
You know, before I came on with you, I was reading about how you've kind of known for your whole life or at least since you were a young child that this, being a park ranger, this is what you wanted to do.
Keena: It is. I didn't actually know that it was called being a park ranger. I just knew that I wanted to talk to people about history outside. I knew I didn't necessarily want to be in a classroom setting. I knew that I wanted history to be a part of it, a big part of it. I just knew that outside was where I wanted to be.
Paul: Yeah. It's really living history, isn't it?
Keena: Right. It is.
Paul: Though certainly in your current role with the Medgar Evers Home, you're talking about somebody who has not been with us for many, many years.
Paul: But, his presence and his family's presence continues to be felt in Jackson and in the civil rights movement as a whole.
Keena: And, but in his legacy. I mean, everywhere you walk around here, you feel him and in this state, learning more and more about him, I always say this to people. I can play six degrees of Medgar Evers anywhere in Mississippi.
Paul: That's true. There's so many connections and this being the 60th year since he was assassinated in his driveway in northwest Jackson, that carries some weight. Doesn't it?
Keena: It does. And, again, my mother is in her mid sixties and that's not old for us today and to just look at her face and to know that she was alive and she would still be considered youngish today and she was alive when he was assassinated.
Paul: Yeah. And, being a Black woman, what does your mother...? I mean, she knew the story. She knew Medgar in real time. What does she think about you being in charge of his legacy here in the City With Soul?
Keena: Oh, she's really, really proud. She's so proud of this and she's also happy that I'm back home and she knows my approach to the work that I do, so she knows that I do play six degrees of separation, so I am connecting everything, connecting all the dots.
Paul: And, home for you is Tuscaloosa. Right?
Keena: Yes. Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Paul: Really close to family. But, a part of the history here in Jackson. And, our histories are so tied together in Alabama and Mississippi as far as the civil rights movement goes.
Keena: Right. I mean, in fact, he was keeping his eye on what was going down at the University of Alabama on June 11th with Governor Wallace and his stand in the schoolhouse door at Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on the day, hours before he was assassinated. So, that's how tied all of this history is connected with the twin states of Alabama and Mississippi.
Paul: And so, what do you think beyond what's obvious to us and what we read in the history books...? What do you see as his lasting legacy on the movement as a whole?
Keena: His ability to work across the aisles, as we would say. And, he knew how to keep his ego in check and to keep his eye on the bigger picture. I just think that's extraordinary, and so it keeps me in check. My charge given from the family as well as the two of them and their legacy is, "You know, Keena, put yourself aside. What is the community? What is the greater good? Who's your team? What's your web? What is your web of influence? Who's helping you, because ain't no way anybody's pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. A, it's impossible to do that. If anybody's ever tried to do that, you can't do it."
Paul: You can't.
Keena: You can't. Who's helping you and how are you helping them? I think that's the lasting legacy.
Paul: I think that's what's so big about Jackson and what people say time after time, that the people are what make a difference here.
Keena: It sure does and in fact, with that home, people come there all the time and they go, "Wow, this reminds me of my grandparents' home, my home that I grew up." And, they look at the size of it and even with the National Park Service, it's classified as a small park and I tell people within the agency when you use that word small, only say that in size.
Keena: Never say that in influence because this park is bigger in influence than the Grand Canyon. It's influence... You have communities in Brazil who have been influenced by Medgar and Myrlie Evers. You have people calling statesmen who are looking towards these civil rights sites, Medgar and Myrlie Evers, saying, "You know, we have these issues. We are looking to them for guidance." They're not calling Grand Canyon for guidance. They're calling little bitty barely a thousand square feet Medgar Evers for guidance. So, that's what I mean. Only say that in size, you know? Acreage. But, never say that in influence.
Paul: It's an amazing piece of history that I don't think a lot of people in Jackson have maybe even ventured out Medgar Evers Boulevard to see and now that you're accepting tours again... For so long, there were not tours. But, there are some tours available. Tell me more about that.
Keena: Because of very many logistical reasons that we can't function like other parks, meaning we don't have bathrooms. We don't have a parking lot. All those things. So, what we do... We have tours on reservation and so Wednesdays and Saturdays right now at 10:00 and at two o'clock. We can only have group sizes 10 or less because, again, the house was built for a family of five, not for group sizes of 25.
Tougaloo once owned it and took care of it really well. They were a private entity. Their rule book was pretty slim of the rules that they had to follow and the people they had to answer to weren't as many. And so, now the people of the United States of America own it and so we have to answer to 340 million people. So, right now Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10:00 and two. And, as we get more people, we're going to increase the amount of tours we offer. But, they will never go over 10 people.
Paul: I really want people in Jackson, especially during this Black History Month 2023, to take full advantage of the cultural and civil rights sites that this city offers. It's such an education and we live right here in the cradle of it.
Keena: I mean, this city is amazing. I just... You know, my wish while I'm here is to work with the city of Jackson to develop more walking tours, driving tours, that sort of thing. The whole city could be way, way, way better than colonial Williamsburg, which has its own version of history that it tells. To me, the realness of Jackson is just fantastic and any time you talk to younger audiences, which angers me when so many people my age and older, they go, "Oh, these younger audiences, they just want their cell phones and blah, blah, blah." That's a tool. It's a tool. That's all it is. But, when you talk to younger audiences, you say, "What do you want?." And, they say, "I just want the truth."
Keena: That's it.
Keena: And, in Jackson here, every place you step, you got the truth. You got the Greyhound station. You got... Even though the Woolworth's counter isn't there anymore, you got the site. You got the power of place and you can make that come alive with digital imagery and be on that site. You got the libraries. You got all of that right there where people are coming here seeking that out. I know because they come to the Home even when it's open and you go, "You're still here." And, they go, "I just want to be here. That's it."
Paul: That's my conversation with Keena Graham, the superintendent of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument. I hope you caught what she said about the Evers house being open for tours again. We've got links in the show notes so you can sign up to see a piece of living history and we've also got ways for you to keep up with the upcoming 60th anniversary commemorations.
Soul Sessions is produced by Visit Jackson, the destination organization for Mississippi's capital city. Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Dr. Rickey Thigpen. If you want to learn more about us and our mission, you can keep up with that at our website. It's always up to date at visitjackson.com.
I'm Paul Wolf and you've been listening to Soul Sessions.
Music: We're the City With Soul. My city. My, my, my city.