Maryemma Graham

Maryemma Graham

Interviewed by Reta Cosby
December 9, 2006

RETA: This is an interview with Dr. Maryemma Graham, professor of English at the University of Kansas. Maryemma, do you mind if I call you Maryemma?


RETA: Would you give us your full name, including your maiden name, and your date of birth?

MARYEMMA: Maryemma Graham. That is my maiden name, I never changed it. I was born June 13, 1949.

RETA: Where were you born?

MARYEMMA: In Augusta, Georgia.

RETA: How long has your family lived in Lawrence?

MARYEMMA: My son and I came to Lawrence in 1998. So, it's eight years.

RETA: Why did your first family members come to Lawrence?

MARYEMMA: I took a job at the university, so I came here as a working adult with a child to raise. But it was a job at the university that brought me here.

RETA: You and your son came?

MARYEMMA: My son and I came. My children were already away in school, so they would come here on their school breaks. But there was one child still at home.

RETA: What is his name?


RETA: What are your other children's' names and ages?

MARYEMMA: I have four children in all. My oldest daughter is Malika Josina. My son's name is Robeson. My third child and my second daughter is Marona Amandla, and there's Rance Gary Du Bois.

RETA: I'm going to ask you to spell those names for me, please (laughter). Are you presently a member of St. Luke?

MARYEMMA: I am presently a member of St. Luke.

RETA: When did you first come to St. Luke?

MARYEMMA: I think that I knew a little bit about the history of the church, that it was the church where Langston Hughes had attended as a child. It was in the heart of Lawrence's eastside community, which used to be called the Bottoms. So, I was learning more about Lawrence history and, then, when I discovered that it was a site on the Underground Railroad, it attracted me to a place that had history. So, I began coming here and there was such a small welcoming community, that it was hard not to continue.

Originally, I actually visited all the churches in Lawrence. I would go to every church in Lawrence. Different Sundays, I'd go to different churches, or I'd go in the morning to one church, in the afternoon to another church. But, then, in 2001 we started planning for the Langston Hughes Centennial, I approached the pastor of this church about being involved, and they were enthusiastic. They worked with us in that process and we had a prayer breakfast here early in 2002, where Alice Walker came. So, this church, even though they had a very small number of people, everybody was working hard, everybody was involved in it, and everything I'd ever seen, that's the way it was. You may only have a handful of people, but they all worked really, really, really hard and they come out for everything.

RETA: When you visited other churches, were they black churches?

MARYEMMA: They were all black churches. I think I might have visited one white church, because I grew up in the Methodist Church. Of course, I grew up in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which is a black church, but I went to the United Methodist Church just out of curiosity. They were very large, very welcoming churches, but I think I didn't feel at home. But all the churches I visited were black churches and it was a good feeling, they were just larger and I didn't know what I had to contribute because there were so many people in those churches and they had lots of things going on all the time. So, here, it looked like there was a place for me and I felt at home right away. So, I think that made the difference for me.

RETA: You said there was a place for you. What place?

MARYEMMA: I think there was a place to share and to talk.

RETA: Do you have any good stories about St. Luke?

MARYEMMA: I think that the church has a way of sort of taking you into their family. The first year I came, of course, I was working at the university. My children were here sometimes and, whenever they came, they would come to church. No matter when my children would come, they would feel welcome. When kids get to be a certain age, they don't necessarily feel that the church is where they want to spend their Sundays. But the strangest thing started happening. My younger son, who, of course, grew up in Lawrence, was the recalcitrant one. He didn't want to do anything and, all of a sudden, he started going to church voluntarily. Then, his last two years he's been in college and he comes home to Lawrence sometimes and I'm not here, he always comes to church. Last year, I was not here because I away for the year and I was not here for the Men's Breakfast, but he came and he served and he played [piano]. It's like he had been gone the whole year and, the day he got back from school, he came right in and I was hearing stories about it. I kept saying, "That couldn't be my son." Yet, he came right in and plugged right in like he had never missed a beat, and that's what they said to me. They said, "He acted like he'd never missed a beat." He had been gone for six months in school and everybody saw him, he came right in the Men's Breakfast, the men served. So, he came in and was one of the servers and helped Dr. Pennington with the music and everything. So, it became home for me and home for him, and I didn't know when that I happened. Now, I can speak for myself, but you can't speak for other people. But he clearly saw this as a home community and he always felt welcomed, even after he had been away for a long time, and the church clearly did that for him independent of me.

RETA: Were you AME?

MARYEMMA: I grew up in a CME church in Augusta, Georgia. It was a CME church and I had always been in the CME church. My mother was a Baptist before she married, but then, of course, she joined the church that my father had been a part of. So, I always grew up in the CME church, and there was no CME church in Lawrence. There are CME churches, I think, in Kansas City, but there were none in Lawrence.

RETA: Do you find a difference in AME and CME?

MARYEMMA: A little bit different, but a lot of the liturgy is similar. The Apostle's Creed, all of those things are the same, so I didn't have to learn a new ritual. So, I think that the differences are pretty minimal. I think the major differences are in the organization of the church and, since I'm not at the level of the district and the national organization and since I'm not a part of that, I don't see that very much. But I'm sure at that level, it's very different; presiding elders, district superintendents and that kind of thing.

RETA: What are some of your favorite church family stories?

MARYEMMA: When we turn things over to the men and they say, "Don't tell us what to do, we're going to do it all," and they always inevitably start out with all the ideas and all the big plans, and usually, two days before the event, you get a call, "Can you come and help [so and so]? Can you come and do this?" So, it's always interesting and nobody ever says anything about it, you just always know that you're going to get that call, even though it's the men doing it.

The other thing that I do find interesting is that, though there are traditional, older people in this church, nobody hesitates to do anything. There's no task that people think is for men to do, for women to do, or for old to do, for young to do. Everybody chips in and does everything whenever there's something to be done, and you never see anybody questioning. So, that to me is surprising. Normally, you have differences in church. It's a community of people and people have differences of opinion, but it's almost as if, even if they have differences, when it comes to something that needs to be done, all those differences we would put aside and it's all hands on deck. So, because it's so small, I think people feel obligated to give their all.

RETA: I know that you live on the west side.

MARYEMMA: I live on the west side of town. That's right.

RETA: And St. Luke is on the east side, which was originally called the Bottoms. What part of Lawrence do you identify most closely with?

MARYEMMA: I work at the university, so the hours of most days are spent on the hill because of that. But, I think that my spiritual and emotional home is here in East Lawrence. I go to the beauty shop in East Lawrence, I visit families in East Lawrence or in North Lawrence, so I know many people in these other communities. So, I think emotionally and spiritually, I feel at home. I guess my work life is in West Lawrence and my home, I guess, is in West Lawrence, but, of course, you create an atmosphere in your home no matter where it is. So, I think that whenever I'm doing things that involve my colleagues at the university, and maybe this is unusual, I invite everybody to my home. So, people come to my house from everywhere, even if it's a university or event or whatever event, the Chancellor could be there, it doesn't matter. It's a house event where everybody is welcomed. So, I think that I've created a kind of bridge between the east side and west side.

RETA: You definitely have, because I've been there with the Chancellor.

MARYEMMA: There you go. Right. The Chancellor is at one end of the table and you're on the other end of the table. We've done that many times. Young people as well. Students come and they bring friends and they bring friends from both sides of Lawrence. So, I think that that's really important in a community this small, that we don't have these divisions that are so fixed and rigid that people are uncomfortable when they cross them. So, I feel perfectly comfortable crossing the bridges and I guess that's the advantage of having a place for me like East Lawrence, which is what I call home too.

RETA: Where did you attend elementary school?

MARYEMMA: I went to Levi White Elementary School in Augusta, Georgia.

RETA: How many grades were in the elementary school?

MARYEMMA: Seven grades. I went to seven grades when I went there.

RETA: Was this a segregated school?

MARYEMMA: It was a segregated school. When I was in elementary school, even though this was desegregation, the town I grew up in didn't act on it until the late 1960s. They should have acted on it in 1954, but they didn't. So, well into the '60s, the schools in my hometown were still segregated.

RETA: So, your athletic teams were all black?

MARYEMMA: All black and we played black teams. You didn't go to school with white people. In fact, it wasn't until I left and came back that I began to see some changes in that town. They were very, very late and it wasn't until somebody brought a suit against the school district that they actually desegregated.

RETA: You left and went where?

MARYEMMA: I left and went to college. I came back and I began to see the high school. It started at the high school, there were some differences. At high school, a couple of black kids went to the white school. I don't believe any white kids came to the black school. I think it always was black kids went to the white school. Black teachers went to the white school. I don't think the reverse was true.

RETA: No it wasn't. The same in Oklahoma. So, your teachers and coaches were all African American?

MARYEMMA: That's right. I grew up in a black community, that's just all there is to it. The only time I saw white people was when I went downtown.

RETA: You talked about bringing a suit against the school system. Were the administrators white?

MARYEMMA: I'm trying to remember what the suit was. The schools were not desegregated and it was a class-action suit, where the school said that we are supposed to have a certain number of people in each district and we don't have and, so, they sued the school board.

RETA: Were any of the school board administrators African American?

MARYEMMA: They were all white. Everybody was all white at that level. Only the principals and the teachers in the black schools were black. Everybody else was all white; school board, superintendent, everybody was white.

RETA: As far as your books and the materials that you all worked from, were they equal to those of the white schools?

MARYEMMA: Absolutely not. We had battered books, didn't have some books. But I also went to school at a time when PTA associations would get together, do fund-raisers and buy books for the kids. I remember spending a lot of time in school when I was a child, Saturdays and Sundays. We had Saturday sock hops and parties and record things. Disc jockeys would come over and raise funds in the black schools and we would buy books.

I went to an elementary school that had a band, and it was the only band in any of the white or black schools. That's because parents had gotten together. This was a rural school; this was not a city school. They had got together, they wanted kids to learn how to play music, and they bought band instruments, they bought clothing, they made the uniforms for the kids, and they hired a teacher who had musical skills. I learned how to play the flute in fifth grade, in a black school.

RETA: Despite the segregated schools, do you think you had an adequate education?

MARYEMMA: I had a very adequate education. I had a superior education. But it was because of caring teachers. It wasn't because of the resources that they had, it was the caring teachers.

I remember we didn't have school lunch programs, but I could go to school and eat breakfast every day, because there were many kids who didn't have breakfast, and teachers brought breakfast to school.

RETA: Was the elementary school the same as the high school?

MARYEMMA: The elementary school was that way. By the time I got to high school, you could see a little bit of difference, because you had to go to high school in the city.

RETA: What the name of your high school?

MARYEMMA: It was Lucy Craft Laney High School. She was a famous person in Augusta who was a black educator. She was a friend of Mary McLeod Bethune and had actually helped to start the first black school in Augusta before there was public education for black people. So, this woman founded a public school. She called it Haynes Institute. She founded it, so that it was higher education for black people. There was elementary school, but you ended at seventh grade. So, you didn't have any high school to go to. But this woman founded a high school for black people. So, when they made a public school, they named it after her because she had founded a private school when she was living, so they named it after her, and that was the first public school.

However, my parents were very active in the desegregation of the schools. So, my father became very fearful, because he was involved in sit-ins and bus rides and all this kind of stuff. So, we had a lot of violence directed towards us and my father became very fearful. So, the United Methodist Church, which was supportive of the efforts of desegregation, asked him if he was fearful for his family and he said, "Yes." He said that I could go to a school in North Carolina, which was one of the Methodist schools. So, I left home at ninth grade and went to school in North Carolina to a Methodist school as a means of protecting me from what was going on with my family, because they were afraid that I would be somewhere without them one day, and somebody would attack me or whatever. So, I was essentially sent away from home because of my parents' activities in the Civil Rights Movement. So, Lucy Craft Laney was the high school, but there was a lot of strife.

RETA: It was integrated?

MARYEMMA: It was being integrated, and bombs being thrown into high school, because many of the kids that were going to school were resisting the fact that they were being rerouted. Busing. This was the busing era and they were trying to get kids not to go, and the kids wanted to stay there.

Then, they took the best teachers. They took the coach, the best athletes and the best musicians and put them in the white school. That created a lot of crisis, because they wanted to basically penalize the black school, put all the best people and the best resources in the white school. Until a few years ago, that struggle at school continued the whole time. Because they let that school go down, down, down. They built two new white schools in the meantime to get people to go, and they bused people to those schools for fifteen-thirty years. They just renovated Lucy Craft Laney High School, and there was a dedication in my hometown in the fall. They just now rebuilt the school after all these years since desegregation.

RETA: Was white flight a major event?

MARYEMMA: Yes, it was. People started going to counties nearby, going closer to South Carolina, closer toward Atlanta. Augusta is between South Carolina and Atlanta, Columbia on one side, Atlanta on the other. People started going both directions and leaving everybody else in the city. So, the city became eighty percent black. This high school was located in the city. The white school was located further away, closer to the city limits. But they bused people there.

So, it was pretty rough. But, as I said, my father especially was playing a very prominent role as a leader of some of the bus boycotts and that kind of thing. He wasn't a minister, but he was a lay leader in the church. One of the differences I noticed in the CME structure is that they have a lay leadership and then they have the trained minister. Both people have roles to play. The laymen have big roles to play, and the laymen in this church believed that social action was what they were supposed to be engaged in. So, he was very actively involved in social action. So, it kept my family in trouble all the time and sometimes he didn't get home at night. So, he just really didn't want my education disrupted. And, when the church offered to let me go to school at one of their schools, that's where I went to school. And that was an interesting experience.

RETA: What was the name of that school?

MARYEMMA: It was Allen High School in Ashville, North Carolina. It was a school for blacks and Native Americans—Cherokee.

RETA: Please continue on about your experiences there.

MARYEMMA: And I didn't realize that. I went to school and I know people looked a little different from me, but I didn't think anything was strange about it. But I later realized that this was in the mountains where the Cherokee Indian reservation was nearby and, so, Cherokee Indians and black people went to a school that was run by the Methodist Church.

RETA: Were you in any clubs or organizations at that school, or sports teams?

MARYEMMA: Yes. We did the usual kind of music club and French club, and I was on the basketball team, tennis team and, because it was located in a small town, we did a lot of stuff in the community. So, I worked at a daycare center, I worked in the library. And it was also a school where you had to work, because everybody had to work. So, my job was in the library and I think that helped me fall in love with books even more than I already was in love in school. So, I was really enjoying that. I spent four years working in the library when I was in high school, and probably would have become a librarian had I not gone to college and somebody said, "You don't have to just be a librarian, you can do something else," because I loved books so much. I spent all my time, I'd leave school and go to the library. I did my homework in the library, I put the books on the shelf, I processed books, I checked out books. I did everything in the library. So, it never occurred to me that I could do anything other than be a librarian.

But it was an interesting experience because, as I said, I was learning about Native American culture without realizing that I was given a rich opportunity.

RETA: Did you interact with the Native Americans?

MARYEMMA: Yes. We went to peoples' homes and we had fry bread. I think that's what it was. I don't know what it was I was eating, but now that I think about it, that's what it was. They didn't call it that, but now I know the name. They lived nearby and, because I lived a little further away, when I would go home on weekends or we would leave for the weekend, I would go visit one of my roommates.

RETA: Were their home lives similar or different than yours?

MARYEMMA: Because I had grown up in the South and nobody had really a lot of wealth or anything, we all lived in houses that needed repair. Sometimes people had bathrooms, sometimes they didn't. I remember we had a bathroom in my house, but the neighbor next to me didn't and, so, sometimes they would come to our house and get water. But sometimes our electricity would go out and we'd have to go over to their house. So, it was a lot of sharing and, In Ashville, maybe there was a little more housing where people did not have indoor plumbing and indoor facilities. But I had grown up with that anyway.

RETA: Did your family move to Ashville or just you?

MARYEMMA: No, I went. My father would drive me to school and I would come home.

RETA: How far was that?

MARYEMMA: About four hours. It was a four-hour drive.

RETA: Every day?

MARYEMMA: No, I would stay there.

RETA: Who would you stay with?

MARYEMMA: They had a dorm for girls who lived away from home, and sometimes we would live with families in the community.

RETA: This was high school?

MARYEMMA: This was high school. So, many times you would live with a family in the community or you'd live in the little bungalow they had. One year, I think, I lived with a family and the other three years I lived in the group home.

RETA: Was this a black home?

MARYEMMA: It was a black family.

RETA: In the group home, were there Native Americans?

MARYEMMA: Yes, and blacks. Because the Native Americans lived nearby, not as many of them. Many of them would commute. They would just come in the day and go back in the afternoon. But some of us lived a little further away. And, if you were a senior, often you wanted to stay on campus because there were things happening at night you wanted to go to, and you couldn't go if you were a day student, because when you got home, you'd have to come back. So, many of the seniors stayed in the group home so they could participate in the social activities on campus.

RETA: What did you feel about your teachers' attitudes at the high school compared to those in the elementary school?

MARYEMMA: This high school was a church school. They were very aware of the social conditions under which we were all in school. So, we did a lot of discussion and studying about the contemporary situation.

I remember I learned the word 'apartheid.' South Africa. I'd never heard that word before, but I had a history teacher who had us do a project on it, and then she showed us films. I remember, because it was a Methodist school, there were a number of women who had been missionaries in Africa. But, because Africa was also undergoing a lot of strife, they had left Africa and they came back to the states. But most of their lives had been spent as missionaries. So, they had lots of information about Africa. So, they would tell us all these stories about Africa, because they lived in Africa for twenty-thirty years. So, I learned early about countries and worlds beyond my own, and I think that was rare. That was unusual.

We would study the Middle East. We would study Australia. We would study black people in other parts of the world in high school.

RETA: Did they support your continued education?

MARYEMMA: Absolutely. They were strongly pro-college, definitely helping you apply for college, encourage you, having you visit schools. I ended up going to school in North Carolina because this place was in the western part of the state. I ended up going to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which is the same state. Because that was the school that many of the people from there went to.

RETA: Were your high school teachers African American?

MARYEMMA: We had white and black teachers, but they were all missionaries. So it was interesting. A few were black teachers who lived in the town. But, for the most part, they were women who were missionaries, who had spent a life of service in some other part of the world. So, they brought with them rich information from Asia, from Indian, from every place. You didn't realize that the church had such long arms, but it did. There were black and white missionaries.

RETA: I bet that was an experience.

MARYEMMA: It was, because I didn't know black missionaries at any time, but I know them now. But we had them and they were teachers.

RETA: These were missionaries through the United Methodist Church?

MARYEMMA: It was called the Board of Missions. They had the Board of Missions and they had people all over the world. It was a global mission that they were engaged in, and they had sent people all over. But the women from Africa, because of so much trouble in Africa during the independence movements, had come home. The other women were older women who had already served their time in Asia or Japan or some other place and, so, they were coming home in middle age and wanted to settle back in the states because their youth was spent some place else.

So, we had the benefit of all their knowledge that they brought with them from twenty years of working in Asia or some other place, and then they would be teaching us. We'd be having a conversation about different family structures, and they would talk about families in India or Chinese families. They could give us stories from all over the world that would tie to something we might be doing.

RETA: You impress me as having some very inspiring people in your life.

MARYEMMA: I think that was true. I had parents who were very active activists and who were inspiring. I had teachers who cared a lot about teaching and learning and who, themselves, had rich experiences that they shared.

RETA: After high school, you went to college?

MARYEMMA: I went to college, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

RETA: Let's talk about your college years.

MARYEMMA: College was rough, because those were the years that if you went to a predominantly white institution, you were among the first people to go there, and there were only a handful of us. So, you were very visible. But we also formed communities very quickly, too, because we would see one black person way over on the other side of the street and you'd be so happy to see them, you would immediately go over to them and say, "Let's have lunch together." And, then before you know it, there'd be ten of you and you'd have lunch together. People called it self-segregation, but we were just so lonely and isolated, that you needed the companionship of people like you.

But I remember having a white roommate that they put me with when I moved into college. When her parents moved her in, they looked at me and they said, "Oh, are you still cleaning up the room?" I said, "No, I'm living in this room." Then it hit them that I was a black roommate for their daughter. They stormed out of there and, then, the dormitory director came over to me, and she apologized. Then I had a room by myself for that semester. The next year, I had a white roommate and there was no problem. As we began to talk, we got along famously. She was a Jewish girl. She said to me that the dean of the college had written to families over the summer and said, "We have some black students living in the dorm. If you would be willing room with a black student, please let us know." Her family had said, "There's no reason you would not room with a black person, so you should send your little notice back in." So, they had prescreened roommates to ask people, so they wouldn't have the incident occur that had occurred to me my freshman year. So, that's how many of us got roommates and didn't have any problems, because they were people who had already been told, "If you don't mind being with a black person, let us know."

RETA: After your undergraduate studies, where did you go?

MARYEMMA: I went to graduate school at Northwestern University, outside of Chicago and, then for advanced graduate study, at Cornell in New York.

RETA: How did you get to KU?

MARYEMMA: I started teaching in the early part of my career. I took jobs in places where I got job opportunities and I moved to Boston with my husband and four children. Then my husband and I separated, and I realized that I needed to come to a community that was a family-oriented community, that would be a place where I could finish raising my children and that I could call home. So, I really looked around for places that were more like the town that I had grown up in, which was small and communal and had a solid black community.

So, when Lawrence was presented to me as a possibility, I was invited here to visit. When I visited, I felt pretty much at home. This was a small town, everybody knows everybody for the most part, there were two high schools as opposed to a big city, ands I said, "Maybe this will be a place I can live." Because I had a younger son and I thought, "If I've got to raise a child by myself and my children need to have a home to come to, I have to move to a place where, one, either cost of living is affordable and the community is supportive.

So, I visited here first and, then, took the job the next year and moved my son here and moved all the stuff that we had here. So, I basically started my life over again here after I separated from my husband. We later divorced.

RETA: Were there two high schools here at that time?

MARYEMMA: There were two high schools here when I came, and we lived down the street from Lawrence High School. We lived walking distance from Lawrence High School when my son was a freshman. In the middle of his sophomore year, we moved to where we live now and he hated me for about two years. Because he could wake up at ten minutes until eight and be at school at eight o'clock. Then he had to get a ride to school and he wasn't driving at the time we moved, so he was not a very happy camper.

Eventually, he did really well in Lawrence, it was right decision for me to make, and he had a wonderful life here growing up, going to school and being a part of the community even though he wasn't born here.

RETA: What year was this?

MARYEMMA: That was 1998. So, when we came, he was in junior high school. He started at junior high school here and high school.

RETA: What junior high did he go to?

MARYEMMA: He went to Central and he had a very good experience. He learned a great deal and he was given an excellent education.

RETA: What are some of your first memories of St. Luke?

MARYEMMA: Nobody being in church. I'd look around, thinking somebody else is coming in, and this was all there was.

RETA: How many members were there?

MARYEMMA: You'd be here Sunday and it might be ten people.

RETA: Who was the pastor at that time?

MARYEMMA: Reverend Taylor has been here the whole time I've been here. And he was just as enthusiastic. It didn't make any difference whether there were ten people or twenty people, he was the same person. His level of excitement and energy and nurturing was always the same. But I'd be afraid to look behind me, because I was thinking, "Well, maybe somebody is here." But, more often than not, there would not be anybody. It was steady. Those same ten people would always be here though. Occasionally families would come.

I think that's what also I noticed, that periodically families would come who had grown up here, and it would be like twenty people from a family and they'd all show up. They would have stories about what it was like when they first came to Lawrence. So, this was a family church.

RETA: Do you remember some of those stories?

MARYEMMA: People would leave home and they'd be angry with parents and they would come to hide in the church. One Sunday the Boy Scout group met here, and this was an all-white group, because the church provided a place for that Boy Scout troop to meet, and they came to church periodically with the whole troop. They would have a whole section of two or three pews and it would be more of them than anybody else, and they would be all white.

So, there were some very odd experiences that I encountered when I would come here and that was before I was a member. I would just come periodically and I'd see these different things.

RETA: When did you become a member?

MARYEMMA: In the fall of 2002.

RETA: Are you actively involved in the congregation now?

MARYEMMA: Yes, I am.

RETA: Do you hold any positions?

MARYEMMA: I am one of the stewards. In the Methodist Church, it's a trustee and in this church it's a steward. So, I am a member of the stewards and I have been for a couple of years. We make decisions. It's collectively done. This is not an authoritative church. People talk things through, they put all their opinions out on the table and then come to agreement, and that's what you do. So, I am a steward. Also, we call on each other to do all kinds of things.

RETA: What do you make decisions about?

MARYEMMA: About whether programs should be scheduled to raise funds; whether we should give support to a family who has been burned out; and a lot of it is letting the church, particularly downstairs, be a place that the community can have public events; and whether the members of this church provide the food, the service or whatever. So, we have a lot of community events downstairs and the members of this congregation are the ones who bring the food, who take care of the families, and they never think about it. There's no money that anybody asks for, they just come and do it. If they say you need this, it shows up and people do it.

So, there's a lot of community service that people in this church are willing to give, and the stewards decide that this is what we're going to do. You show up at that time and you do it.

RETA: You talked about Alice Walker speaking here.

MARYEMMA: She came and spoke.

RETA: Can you talk about some other community events that you've had downstairs?

MARYEMMA: They've had family reunions here.

RETA: I hear the men practicing.

MARYEMMA: Yeah. They have family reunions. They have the Men's Breakfast, they do these big fish fries, and these are fund raisers. They started doing plays again last year, which was an intriguing experience, because this apparently used to be a church where that was done quite often and, so, they've started that tradition again of writing and having plays that are open to the community. Napoleon Crews has been writing those plays, and the last one they did was one that they did both at the Lawrence Arts Center and at the church. They don't just do plays the way normally people do; it was a dinner theater. So, they provide the dinner and you come to see the play and you eat. That's typical of St. Luke.

RETA: I participated in the first two of his plays. That was an incredible experience.

MARYEMMA: My son participated in the last one and it was the same thing. You're right.

RETA: What is your Sunday forum like?

MARYEMMA: We have service. There's a small Sunday school which everybody participates in. We don't do separate classes because it's a small group, and, then we have a service at 11:00. Frequently after service, there's dinner, very often. I wouldn't say once a month, but fairly often we'll have dinner after church.

RETA: Do you cook dinners or is potluck?

MARYEMMA: It's potluck. Sometimes people cook here. Sometimes the guys get in here early, they put the fish or chicken on downstairs, they come to the service and, then, they go back about 12:30 and make sure the stuff is all ready and we go downstairs and we all pitch in and we eat together.

RETA: You talked about your son participating in the Men's Breakfast. What about your other children when they come?

MARYEMMA: When they come, they've done it too. If they're here at that time, they all participate. It's the kind of church where you don't have to feel like an outsider, you always feel like an insider, and they make you feel that way.

RETA: Are the community events typically segregated?

MARYEMMA: I think that Lawrence is a segregated community, but my experience at St. Luke is that it has a very diverse and supportive community.

RETA: Yes, it does.

MARYEMMA: The Men's Breakfast, all kinds of stuff. When we had the book signing for Mary Townsend, everybody comes. So, this has been a place that has been well integrated, very diverse all along and it's not unusual for them to come to church on Sunday morning either. You will see people who come from the community, who just want to come and worship with us. There are a lot of mixed couples in the church, so I think that that is a sign that people are welcomed in this church. Black and white couples who intermarry are members of this church too.

RETA: We're going to get a little personal here. Do you think that with your educational influence, like Napoleon and Dorthy Pennington, do you think that you all influence people to come here?

MARYEMMA: That's interesting, because you're right, we do. There's Joyce Pearson, there's Dorthy Pennington, there's me. We're all at the university, we all have these advanced degrees and we're all members of this church. You're not made to feel that you're above anybody, and I think people don't hold you up to any standard that is different. For instance, if downstairs needs to be swept, anybody is asked to do it and, just because you are Dr. So and So, that doesn't give you any excuse, you've still got to sweep downstairs. I think it's that sense of equality that people operate with here. The one thing I notice is they insist on calling me Dr. Graham. They do that and I think that that's just a tradition. They will say Dr. Pennington, they will say Dr. Graham, and it doesn't make any difference. Occasionally, the pastor calls me Maryemma, but almost everyone else will call me Dr. Graham.

RETA: Do you think it's a sense of pride in the church that they have these doctors?

MARYEMMA: When I grew up in the South, I understood it that way, and that's the way I took it to mean here, too. You have achieved that and you represent yourself, but you also represent us. So, when we say that, we are showing respect for you and for what people can accomplish and how proud we are of you. So, I understand that that's why they do it.

RETA: In the presence of the public, I call you Maryemma because I pride myself in knowing Dr. Graham (laughter).

MARYEMMA: I expect to be called Maryemma, but more of my students call me Maryemma than people in the church, because we have a sense of informality. But we're informal toward each other in terms of the way we behave toward each other, but just in speaking and calling your name. But, other than that, it's still very informal and everybody expects everybody to tease each other and they're very friendly.

My car broke down one day, and Leonard gave me a lift because I was standing out in the cold, and you can call on him to pick you up. So, you really do feel you have people you can depend on.

My son Robeson, my oldest son, went to Pastor Taylor for therapy, when we really needed him with some issues that he was working through. He came to high school here in Lawrence for one year. He lived with me and I didn't know what to do with him. I was just at my wit's end.

Pastor Taylor took him into his care and he met with him on a regular basis. I was making him go at first and, then all of a sudden, he was going on his own. So, he knew that he was in the right hands, so he has a good relationship with Pastor Taylor today. Even though he doesn't come to Lawrence that often, when he does, he sees him.

RETA: Where does he live now?

MARYEMMA: He lives in Boston. He's out of college and he's working, but he still considers Pastor Taylor a very close friend.

RETA: Is his father in Boston also?

MARYEMMA: No. But he [Robeson] did grow up there and I think he wanted to go back. I don't think he's going to live there for a long time, but he wanted to try his hand at getting a job in the place where he grew up. So, it was something that he needed to do for himself. But it cost too much to live there, so I don't know how long he's going to stay (laughter).

RETA: Do you consider faith an important part of your life?

MARYEMMA: Absolutely!

RETA: Have you found any conflicts in your faith and your profession?

MARYEMMA: No. What I've found is that when I lapse in my faith, I'm not successful at all, and I didn't know that. I had to realize that, when you think that you can do it all yourself and that you don't need to renew your faith, when you know that you have faith and you know it's there deep down inside, but you just kind of dismiss it. You kind of think, "Oh, it's not that important. I'm too busy. I've got other things to do," and I found in that part of my life, there was a lot missing. And, when I renewed my faith and when I separated from my husband, I think I had a chance to think through some of those things and reconsider ways that I had been living and choices that I'd made. When I realized that I lived a good part of my marriage as a person with a life not built on faith, I realize also that that probably was one of reasons why it wasn't as successful as it could have been. Now, I'm not saying that it was all my fault, because obviously two people in a process is not any one person's fault. But I do say that there was some faith missing and, had more faith been there, there's no telling what would have happened.

RETA: You re-evaluated your marriage?

MARYEMMA: Absolutely! I re-evaluated my whole life, and I realized the one thing that I'm never going to be without again is a very visible faith, a very working faith, and being around people who are with faith, which is another part of that. Because you can have faith and be around people who don't have faith, and I'm not sure that's such a good thing. I mean, you're not a holier-than-thou person, but you do have to surround yourself with people with faith, that's for sure.

RETA: You mentioned that you were drawn to this church because of the history. Can relate some of the church's role in Lawrence history?

MARYEMMA: I think that there are many black churches in Lawrence, and today' it's hard to know what the history of those churches is because they're not what they used to be. Everything changes. But, when St. Luke was founded, the site that is here now was not the original site. But it has a history of slavery.

RETA: Dorothy Harvey talked about that.

MARYEMMA: There are families who came here in the nineteenth century and they affiliated with this church community, and they built the church, a community at first and then a physical church later. There are some very old families who are part of this church. Their history goes back a long way.

RETA: Do you know some of their names?

MARYEMMA: The Harvey family is one of them whose grandparents and great- grandparents came here, and they have their farm and still live on the farm. They sent their sons to KU in the nineteenth century, before segregation became such a terrible thing in this country. So, with that kind of history, when you think about that, you realize what a role this church has played in helping to sustain this community.

Then, the period with Langston Hughes was another part of that. There was a time when the Hughes family and Hughes' grandmother went to this church. And the aunt and uncle that he was friendly with went to this church.

RETA: When did you first hear that Langston Hughes went to this church?

MARYEMMA: I knew that he had a relationship to Lawrence, but I didn't know what the church was. I did some research on that and I think Dr. Pennington was probably the first person to let me know some of that history, because she has done a lot of the church history and was one of the persons responsible for getting it on the historic record as a historic site. So, I have to credit Dorthy with having a lot of that knowledge and sharing it with us.

RETA: What else do you know about Langston Hughes?

MARYEMMA: Well, I think that Hughes took from this community a strong sense of independence. I think you can be who you are wherever you are. I think that the lesson that he got in Lawrence, is that this is a community where you can be yourself, but you're also apart of something larger. So, he never lived anywhere where he felt alone. Hughes felt a part of a human community, and I think he must have gotten that when he was growing up in Lawrence, that there was everybody who lived here was part of this community. So, wherever he lived, that was his community. He didn't feel ill at ease any place he went.

RETA: Were there places in his writings that you thought he was referring to St. Luke?

MARYEMMA: I think in Not without Laughter, the scene where he joins the church is very much a scene based on the experience here in Lawrence and at St. Luke.

RETA: What about the mother's performance? His mother had performed in a church.

MARYEMMA: That's right. Some people think that it might have been Ninth Street, but we don't know.

RETA: He was making faces while his mother was performing.

MARYEMMA: That's right. He did do that. So, he brings those experiences right into his books. Then, of course, he visited here when became famous and there are people who remember him coming to Lawrence in the 1960s.

RETA: I remember him talking about passing the church where they had electricity, and in researching the Ninth Street Church history, we find the time where they were putting the electric lights in. I wondered if that was the church that he was talking about.

MARYEMMA: I think that he's sometimes talking about St. Luke; he's sometimes talking about Ninth Street. I think that's true.

RETA: As far as African American and black businesses in Lawrence, are you familiar with any of them?

MARYEMMA: I know that there was a large black business community here, but I don't know any. The only business that I had some association with was Odessa's Cafe.

RETA: What happened to that?

MARYEMMA: I don't know. I was gone last year and, when I came back, it was not in business and a big sign says "For Sale." I do not know what happened. But I was a very strong supporter of Odessa.

RETA: You were, because we had a couple of dinners there.

MARYEMMA: We had a couple of things there. My son did his graduation breakfast there when he graduated from Lawrence High. We met there before we went to the graduation on Sunday. We had breakfast there for family and friends. I threw a lot of business her way. She would cater the basketball team and stuff like that. I would have my students meeting there on Saturdays. We would go there for breakfast and have meetings. But this town can't sustain a black business like it used to. I don't know what the story is, nobody has told me, and I haven't seen Odessa lately, because if I see her, I'll ask her.

RETA: I understand her mother is in a nursing home now.

MARYEMMA: I didn't know that.

RETA: Mrs. Shorter. That's what I heard.

What inspired you to research St. Luke history?

MARYEMMA: By definition, I think I'm a researcher. I like to know what is in the public record, what's in the historical record and, if there are gaps there, they need to be filled in. I think it's my job to do so and I think that's the way I operate. I like to know, I like to know the truth, I like to know history, and sometimes you don't know it and you have to find it.

RETA: Have you integrated any of your church research history into your teaching.

MARYEMMA: Whenever we refer to Hughes or whenever we refer to African American culture, and many of the books that I teach are books by black writers, so you're going to be talking about black culture. I remind students that we live in a community that has a very solid base and that you don't have to read these things just in the books, you can actually see them live. So, many times church scenes are in books or in films, and we tell students, "This is just not in the film, it's not in this book, this is really over there at Ninth Street" or at whatever. You can go down to Rev. Dulin, you can go to these churches and find this every Sunday morning. So, don't act like it doesn't happen. People are thinking, "Is it really like that?" "Yes, it's really like that." So, I get a chance to let people know that you don't have to go too far from the campus.

RETA: Has KU valued you and your research?

MARYEMMA: I think they have. When I teach my course in culture. In fact, at Ninth Street a few years ago, when I had one of my courses, students went to church on a Sunday and they all went together and they talked about it when we came back to class that next day. Because they'd never been to a black church, I wanted the students to see it. Black students were in that class, too, so both black and white students went. The white students were the ones that never had the experience, and we talked about it and it was a very good experience for them. So, whenever I have a chance to teach those classes, I really do some hands on experience, and Lawrence is a good place for that.

RETA: How did you earn the trust of the various people in the congregation?

MARYEMMA: I think you have to work with people. They have to see you as a person who's willing to give of yourself, to be reliable when you're called on, when you're needed, you're there. You pitch in and you don't expect anything in return. So, I think trust comes over time. It's a relationship. It doesn't come automatically.

RETA: What do you see in the future of St. Luke and your work here?

MARYEMMA: We're working toward and we're talking a lot about young people, because everybody is concerned about our youth. I think churches can play a really big role in being a place where the kinds of discussions that young people think belong outside the church can be had inside the church, where the leadership that they so desperately need can be provided, where they're talents can be developed and encouraged. I think churches have to be more aggressive in that regard, and I think St. Luke sees itself as that, because it has aging members. It's got babies and aging members, and not a whole lot of people in between. So, we've got to figure out how to build up that base of young people, because we don't have a large population of young people and this is not a church where students come from KU. We're off the beaten track.

RETA: Why do you think that?

MARYEMMA: Well, we're far away from campus and there are other choices.

RETA: I think one reason Ninth Street has a large congregation is because Pastor Brown has gone after the students.

MARYEMMA: It's right next door and active. He's also teaching on campus now, I think.

RETA: So, he's made his presence known, and he's the football chaplain.

MARYEMMA: I think that's it. He's very much involved with the football team. The NAACP sometimes meets here and I think that that's one way. But I just think we just have to be more aggressive about that. I think, in part, it was the pastor. He's the football chaplain, it's closer location-wise, and I think it's a livelier church. You have more young people in the church, and young people attract young people. Because I enjoy going to Ninth Street, too, and I like the energy there. There's no question about that.

RETA: What plans do you have or are there any plans to recruit younger members?

MARYEMMA: We're still talking about it. We're still talking about what we need to do, what structures do we need to put in place to bring more young people. What kinds of activities should we initiate? I think that when we did the Langston Hughes poetry project stuff, some of that helped to bring people and to give more attention to the church. But we just have to do more of that.

RETA: Dorie called me the other day about Richard Wright.

MARYEMMA: Richard Wright. We are getting ready to do that in 2008.

RETA: I'm looking forward to that.

MARYEMMA: She told me you did.

RETA: So, whatever we can work out together to get the young people to do that.

MARYEMMA: That's what we got to do.

RETA: The NAACP Youth Council is started now.

MARYEMMA: I have some Langston Hughes tee-shirts by the way, too. So, if you need some tee-shirts, just let me know and we can give them to you.
This has been very enjoyable. Thank you.

RETA: It's been a pleasure talking to you.

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