Charles Graham is a man with a message.
In a baritone both calm and convincing, Graham delivers the script-worthy story of his life with diction so perfect and accent-free that it belies any hint of his rural Arkansas upbringing. But with his powerful gospel voice describing cotton stalks rising from sandy loam and days afield in 100-degree heat, it’s immediately clear that his is a setting purely Southern. As he reflects on his youth, a stream of continuous memories fills the room—verse after verse about life in the late ’50s and ’60s as a poor black child in the Arkansas Delta.
At his home on the banks of Bayou Bartholomew, Graham provides historical references and detailed mental imagery to accompany his story of faith. He talks about being born and raised here in Baxter—just a wide spot in the road now—tucked away deep in Southeast Arkansas near the Drew-Chicot county line. Once a railroad hub and bayou steamboat port, Baxter was a tangle of dusty fields and rickety tenant houses by the time Graham came into the world, save for one unmistakable landmark.
It’s a landmark that occupies many of Graham’s memories, a cache of recollections played over and over in his mind. As he sits in his chair, looking past the listener, it’s as if he can see himself among endless rows of cotton with the sun rising over the bayou. He remembers looking up from his work as an orange glow burned away a humid haze, illuminating a beautiful estate at the far end of the fields. As the morning light softened, he could see the tall columns and expansive porches of a large plantation-style house.
It was the Baxter Plantation, as the property would be known for more than 100 years. Wealthy planter and merchant S.A. Duke had built his home on this estate in classic Southern fashion, complete with giant magnolia trees and a sprawling pecan grove. The structure was a well-known sight that served as the home and headquarters for the farming operation for which the Graham family worked in the fields.
During the summer heat when a cotton-hoe handle filled Graham’s hands, visions of what the 5,000-square-foot mansion must look like on the inside filled his thoughts. “Big families amount to a big workforce; I was the fifth of 13 children,” Graham says. “Most of my family worked as hired labor for the farm. Everything there was still done by hand, including picking cotton. The goal was to ‘break a hundred,’ meaning to pick over 100 pounds per day.” The recollection casts a hint of distress on Graham’s face, even while his voice is cheerfully upbeat. “We were so poor we didn’t need a weather report,” he continues jokingly. “If it was raining outside, you felt it on the inside at our house!”
It was a life that revolved around work and church, and not much else. At the age of 10, Graham was baptized in the flowing waters of the bayou a mere stone’s throw from the plantation. It was an event that would become the cornerstone of his faith—the backstory for what was to be a grand testimony eventually delivered from pulpits and on church stages hundreds of times for thousands of people. The muddy water and joyful music became the basis for the message he would learn to build like a fire—beginning as a story, advancing to a sermon and exploding into a song. But before the world heard that message or his music, Graham would focus on getting an education.
In 1975, he left the area with no plans to return other than for a visit. Attending colleges in Missouri and Oklahoma, Charles completed an art degree in 1984, and over the course of the next 20 years, he built a musical ministry encompassing six gospel albums. Charles Graham was in demand for both his recorded music and his “bring-the-house-down” ministerial performances. An adolescence full of physical labor and strict discipline had prepared him for a demanding life of constant motion. By the 1990s, his success was real: He had traveled to every corner of the U.S., as well as 13 foreign countries, as a performer.
But while we may leave Arkansas, Arkansas never leaves us.
Graham returned home for an infrequent visit around 2007 and learned that the Baxter house—10 years vacant and long in disrepair—was for sale. As he walked the property, the sight of the giant cypress in the bayou and the scent of magnolia in the yard surrounding the old house quietly stirred the spark that first lit his faith. For so long the momentum of his life had pushed him away from where he now stood, yet there seemed to be a plan, even if all the details remained unrevealed. At that moment, it became clear: With his guidance, the old plantation just might return to its former glory with a fresh purpose.
It certainly wasn’t going to be easy. In addition to the initial investment, the restoration would be a major undertaking. But while Graham comes across as easy-going and laid-back on the outside, there is an evident and undeniable tenacity burning within the man. He eventually bought the house and 100 acres of adjacent farmland, moved back and moved in, leaving behind a comfortable West Coast lifestyle for an aging home in the suburbs of Dermott.
The deed’s ink was not yet dry as Graham rallied family, friends and contacts from as far away as London to help restore the property. The house itself became a continuous work in progress. Graham painted, plumbed and pounded nails as well as he could, but he never turned down an offer for expert advice or a helping hand. The desire to see the old place brought back to life became a combined cause for those who remembered what it once was, as well as those who believed in Graham’s vision for the house’s future.
It took two more years of near-constant labor by Graham and his friends before the work was complete. In 2009, The Fountains: Place of Refreshing, as it is now known—a place for ministerial rest and reflection, as well as a venue for local community events such as Christmas gatherings for underprivileged children—finally opened.
The restoration of the house with a new faith-based purpose built bridges to the past and spawned friendships in unexpected ways. Soon after the house was finished, a descendant of the family who had owned the property when Graham was a child stopped by to see the transformation. A few days later, the young man and his fiancee asked if they could have their wedding on the property. Graham performed the nuptials.
It’s a story that’s clearly one of his favorites, and within minutes of meeting him, it becomes easy to understand why they asked. Graham doesn’t just make connections between people and places and music and history. He becomes a living connection.Everything he says and does seems fueled by hopeful ebullience.
With his tall frame perfectly postured across the table, his large hands gesture in a chopping motion to punctuate the matter-of-factness in his words: “I saw beyond what the place was and envisioned what it could be.”
He had returned home to the Arkansas Delta to purchase and restore a house that he was never allowed to enter as a child. But to meet Graham is to see a man genuinely grateful for the sum of his experiences. He embraces every challenge and every opportunity with the total conviction that they were designed by a higher power. We have a choice of how to participate in a world where everything happens for a reason, his sermon asserts—sometimes we just have to look beyond peeling paint or leaky ceilings.
One thing is abundantly clear: Charles Graham delivers his message with conviction.
Perhaps that baptism in the bayou helped a little bit, too.