To My Nana, The First Archivist I Knew

For Frances Louise McLean Graham (October 12, 1946 – December 13, 2019)

“My first introduction to this field began not in the classroom but in my Nana’s kitchen cutting collards and seasoning catfish. She carried lessons of Black history through food, gossip (her form of historical fact), and stories of her upbringing in rural North Carolina. Her approach in teaching history, shaped my approach in studying, writing, and sharing the past. ”

Christina Thomas

My historical training begins with my Nana. She was an archivist, not in the traditional sense, but in a familial and communal one. When you entered her home in Robeson County, North Carolina, you came in through the side door before entering the den. This is were she greeted you. The front door, which no one used, led to her living room, a place where only God and a selective group of Her adult children could enter. It was a place as a child I peeked into and entered only momentarily before hearing a yell from my snitching cousin, “NANA, CHRISTINA’S IN THE LIVING ROOM!” Sometimes we would enter together to laugh at the photos on the wall, particularly one of us as small children. I was only officially welcomed a few times to sit at the dining room table, but never to pass that invisible line into the living room. The living room was a sacred place where my Nana preserved history.

The rules between the archive and my Nana’s living room were quite similar—have permission to enter, no eating or drinking in this space, no touching sensitive materials, and place objects back where you found them. Only difference between my Nana and an archivist was the consequences of not following the rules, one could give a stern warning, the other a stern hand. Located in a higher part of the home, the living room was safe from the flood waters that threatened to come during a hurricane or heavy rainstorm. As the years and storms went by, my Nana placed even more photographs, documents, and other objects in the sanctuary of that living room taking more precaution as Hurricane Matthew flooded her home in 2016. Her living room was not a place for our clumsy young hands, but sneaking into it was like going back into time. Dark wood paneling cover all four walls and a 1960s wooden box tv set sits on the floor (even today). The eclectic furniture, a Queen Anne style sofa set, reminded me of Queen Elizabeth and in the corner was a large record player that took up much of the wall. And of course an iconic image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on the wall. On the opposite end sits a grand dining room table and a hutch, with plates we never used, sits between two large shelves filled with a 1972 World Book encyclopedia set and Biblical commentaries. The carpet is white, I believe, although the abundance of artifacts always caused one eyes to look up, never down.

Source: Priscilla Graham

As we became older, she slowly opened up the living room to us. No longer did we dash in for a moment to grab something for her or to peek at images on the wall. One Christmas, she even allowed us to eat at the dining room table (and we ain’t know how to act). The sacredness of the living room and its holdings became a space vital to my training as a historian. Since I was a little girl, I became interested in her three large photo albums, the photos on the wall, and documents that hung around them. The album held photos that stuck to its pages. Some photos had slide out of their original location, which forced you to hold it flat against a table or on the floor. In between images were newspaper clippings. One declared the first Saturday of April as Rufus Graham Day, in honor of my grandfather, another a card from the White House inviting my grandparents for an event.

Wipe your hands. Do not pull out the photos. Put everything back the way you found. Rules which I agreed to before opening the albums. I could stare at the photos for hours looking at the faces, both familiar and unfamiliar. With no labels, I turned to my mom asking, “Who is this?” or “Do you know this person?” With her failure to give me a proper response, I went to ask the source, my Nana. To every person I pointed out, she had a response and a story. An overhearing, aka nosey, relative also added more to the stories, of what truly happened. I absorbed all the gossip quickly adopting the nosey trait. I quickly learned that memories, all depended on who was telling the story.

My Nana had an abundance of photos, documenting each moment she could. She took the film to a developer and carefully crafted and organized the photographs in an order only she knew. In the face of a little girl, I saw my mother in the arms of my young grandparents. In another, my aunt and uncle. My Nana even kept their high school ID cards and placed them in the album. For the elders in our family, she displayed their photos throughout the walls of her home. And their placement was strategic, away from direct sunlight, properly framed, and mounted unto the wall. In drawers, tucked away from the light, were obituaries, which carried genealogies of my family’s history. Can I take these to digitize for my records? I thought to myself knowing how careful and protective she was with these items. I asked and with a steer warning and a blessing she responded, “Only if you bring them back.” Other documents centered on my grandfather, the late Reverend Dr. Rufus Graham, the founding and building of Graham Temple’s Church of God in Christ (its location in Laurinburg, NC), and the development of Graham Temple’s Development Center. From building blueprints, permits, and other documents key to the development of the church, my grandmother saved it all.

Last fall, shortly after her return from the hospital, I traveled from Baltimore to visit her. It was now easier for guests to come through the main door than the traditional side door and I believe it was my first time (2019) entering through that door. As we sat in the living room, I peered over to a small bookcase to my left. I begin flipping through the books and found her high school yearbook from 1966. I had never seen it before and the historian in me was now curious. I quickly looked and found her senior photograph. Of course, my Nana was a beautiful. Ohhhh Nana, I exclaimed. She laughed. I flipped to the autographs page and quickly scanned for my grandfather’s name, Rufus. Sure enough, there he was. He wrote, “I shall always remember you, you made my life worth living.” Ohhhh Nana!,” I screamed reading it out loud. She just smiled and gave me a quick nod as my mom teased her. By that point, I had gained her trust in handling the archival material in the living room. As her and my mom talked, I moved about noting how much changed over the years, my high school photographs, my cousins’ military awards and portraits, and trophies of her winning Church Mother of the year were all added to the living room’s archive. Everything made sense, her organization, her finding the right place for each item, and her keeping the old and blending in the new.

An ethics of care and love were central to her archival practice. She documented each moment, significant or small, and after my grandfather’s death, she kept every piece of history of his activism and of the church. My Nana taught me the rules of the archive before I ever imagined becoming a historian and I entered the space with the same love and care she taught me. As I continue in my doctoral program in history, I am often reminded of my Nana’s archival practice and her approach to preserving our family history as I study another Black family’s narrative. I lost her four days before Christmas and it was the first time we spent the holidays in her home without her. After her wake, it was odd to see people gather in that living room and eating in that forbidden place. I wanted to tell her, I wanted them to abide by her rules. Folks came and went and soon my aunt shut the doors, closing that sacred space from everyone. But I peeked in one last time and sat absorbing the past, waiting for someone to yell to my Nana that I was in the living room.

Christina

This post first appeared at Electric.Marronage.

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