When the archives closed due to COVID-19, Keon Burns had to change his original idea for his thesis and focus on something closer to home. So he chose a paper he wrote for Catarina Passidomo’s SST 555: Foodways course about his great-grandparents’ grocery store in Bolton, Mississippi.

That paper morphed into “Black Grocers, Black Activism, and the Spaces in Between: Black Grocery Stores during the Mississippi Freedom Struggle Movement,” the thesis Burns successfully defended April 26. In the original paper, he only discussed the food-related research that he came across, but the store represented much more than a food source to the community.

“For the project, I wasn’t unable to find any significant information on the store through a traditional source such as land deeds or store ledgers,” Burns said. “Therefore, I decided that this project would be perfect for me to apply oral history methods to collect information, but again, I ran across a problem. The store operated from around 1940-1979, so many of the people who experienced the store had passed away or didn’t feel comfortable discussing the store on the record.”

Eventually, he found a couple of narrators who felt more than comfortable on the record, and one felt compelled that he should know everything about the store.

“As I expanded this paper, I highlighted the larger role that Black-owned grocery stores played in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement,” Burns said. “I focus on three other Mississippi grocers: Gus Courtship, George Lee, and Booker Wright, who exemplify how vital grocery stores were to the movement, and I also focus on how food was weaponized and politicized to halt or progress the movement. As I continued to work on this paper I noticed that Black grocery stores were clearly a site of contestment for the movement, and I think this is the novel part of my work.”

His thesis committee Shennette Garrett-Scott, Brian Foster, and Jodi Skipper were all instrumental in helping Burns along the way.

“One memory that highlights the amount of patience and wisdom that Dr. Garrett-Scott has exhibited throughout my thesis grind was when she instructed me to rewrite just the first paragraph of my introduction from my original seminar paper and used Dr. Foster’s ‘I Don’t Like the Blues’ as a template to place myself into the work,” Burns said. “After a couple of days, we met and discussed my experiences and she instructed me to do the same thing again, revise my revision. This continued for several weeks, and to this day that paragraph is the best writing that I have produced.”

Burns, who is originally from Clinton, Mississippi and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Mississippi in 2018, said being in graduate school during the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise because it forced him to slow down and be accountable for his actions.

“It’s really hard to find external forces to blame for my actions or inactions when I was hours away from the university and confined to my apartment’s four walls,” Burns said. “However, being a student also came with some unique challenges, for example, everyone is aware that being financially squeezed is a side effect of being a college student, but amid a pandemic, this squeeze often became crushing. I’ll say that’s one important lesson that I will carry with me moving forward: always keep a financial nest egg.”

Burns has enjoyed his time at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, but wished the pandemic hadn’t cut the in-person aspect short.

“After my first semester, I had just started to develop a rapport with the faculty to just stop by the Center if I wanted to talk or get some direction on a project,” he said. “I believe this is one of the unspoken strengths of the Center. Everyone from the top down is so invested in your work and growth.”

One of the highlights of his time in Oxford was volunteering for the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance fall symposium and meeting author Kiese Laymon.

“Being able to meet one of my literary heroes and develop a relationship with him gave me a new perspective on the possibilities and reach of scholarly work, and mentorship through Dr. Garrett-Scott and Dr. Foster reinforced this point,” Burns said.

He will be further expanding on those possibilities after graduation, when he begins his journey at Pennsylvania State University as a joint Ph.D. candidate in history and African American studies.  He has been awarded several fellowships and scholarships including the Bunton-Waller scholarship and a fellowship at the Center for Black Digital Research.

Writen by Rebecca Lauck Cleary