by Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
In the spring of 2019, Latria (pronounced La-tray-a) Graham was chosen to be one of the first Steve Kemp writers-in-residence, spending six weeks learning and writing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The residency—funded by Great Smoky Mountains Association and named for its 30-year veteran Steve Kemp—is designed to connect writers with the Smokies in meaningful ways and to inspire some of their best work.
|Latria Graham’s article for Outside titled “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us” established her as a spokeswoman for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors.|
Coming to the park from Spartanburg, South Carolina, Graham was already an accomplished journalist. A fifth-generation farmer and a graduate of Dartmouth College and The New School in New York City, Graham has been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, Southern Living, and Garden&Gun. She is a Best American Sportswriting notable for her stories on athletes in places of tension and she received a Bronze level CASE Award for her reporting on immigration policy.
In 2018, she wrote an article for Outside titled “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us” about her family’s relationship to nature and the stereotypes and obstacles to access that Black people often face in the outdoors.
“That article changed my life,” she said. “People paid me for speaking gigs and writing workshops. They put me on planes and flew me across the country to talk about equity, inclusion, and accountability.”
In addition to opening doors for Graham as a journalist—and establishing her role as a champion for fellow Black explorers wanting to feel comfortable in the outdoors—the article positioned her well for a residency in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“I came to the Smokies with dreams of writing about the natural world,” Graham wrote in another story for Outside, this one titled “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream,” published a year after her residency. “I wanted to talk about the enigmatic Walker sisters, the park’s brook trout restoration efforts, and the groundbreaking agreement that the National Park Service reached with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians about their right to sustainably harvest the edible sochan plant on their ancestral lands.”
Graham said her Blackness and her natural curiosity about the Black people living in the region were not at the front of her mind when she arrived to stay in the park. “I naively figured I would learn about them in the historical panels of the visitor centers along with the former white inhabitants and the Cherokee.”
What Graham didn’t know yet was that the Smokies was just embarking on its own efforts to learn about the African American people who lived on the land before it became a park in the 1930s.
Not long after she arrived, Graham became interested in the story of Sook Turner and her family, African Americans who are buried in the Meigs Mountain area. “I wanted to know how they got here, how they survived, and ultimately where their descendants wound up.”
Three weeks into her residency, she made an early afternoon visit to the national park archives to learn what information was available on Black people. She left with one sheet of paper—a slave schedule that listed the age, sex, and race (“black” or “mulatto”) of bodies held in captivity. “There were no names. There were no pictures. There was nothing.”
Adding to this disappointment, Graham had a less-than-welcoming experience in one area of the park, which she writes about in “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream.” Yet, all in all, largely due to her own resilience and networking, she has made the Smokies her own.
“I relish the moments right before sunrise up at Purchase Knob in the North Carolina section of the Smokies,” she said. “The world is quiet, my mind is still, and the birds, chattering to one another, do not mind my presence. I believe this is what Eden must have been like.”
By the end of 2020, Great Smoky Mountains Association had contributed nearly $70,000 to fund research efforts to begin telling the stories of the Black people who lived in the Smokies. As a result, the park and those who love it are beginning to better understand the complex history of the African American experience here.
Latria Graham recently learned that “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream” has been named a finalist for the 2021 Phillip D. Reed Environmental Writing Award and will be a featured story in “Best American Travel Writing 2021” and “Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021.” Find the full article at OutsideOnline.com.
You can learn more about Graham in an interview to appear in the spring 2021 edition of Smokies Life magazine along with an excerpt from “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream.”