April 19, 2023
Graham Marsh Nature Preserve: Giving back is second nature
By Bill Brower, Vice President, Industry Relations, Solera, Inc.
Earth Day is just around the corner, and the Graham Marsh family of Alabama couldn’t be more excited to celebrate this annual day of environmental recognition at their nature preserve by broadening awareness of the need to protect the Earth’s natural resources for generations to come.
To whom much is given, much is indeed expected and required.
“We wanted to give something back to Choctaw County, one of Alabama’s most impoverished areas,” says Tony Graham, Solera’s EVP & Head of North America Sales.
Graham, along with four generations of the Graham Marsh family were present at the official opening of the Graham Marsh Nature Preserve (GMNP) on Nov 25, 2022. The 20-acre privatelyowned nature preserve in Lisman, Alabama – now open to public – is also known as Marshtown after the Marsh Family.
The land has been owned by the Graham Marsh family for more than 150 years. Not surprisingly, more than two dozen Graham Marsh family members attended the official opening of the preserve, which is the first of its kind and the second nature preserve in southeastern U.S. owned and operated by an African American family.
“The Graham Marsh family takes great pride and joy in conserving the land that our ancestors labored for,” said Graham, who is also the founder of GMNP. “Strengthening and giving back to our community” is why the family opened the land to the public.
A Labor of Love
The preserve rests in the middle of over 800 of the 2,000 total acres of land first purchased by the Graham/Marsh ancestor Columbus (Lum) Marsh in 1865 from his enslaver Ja-Mes Marsh after slavery was abolished. The land was sold to Columbus for $0.50 per acre.
Columbus started clearing the land and planting crops to support his family. In 1878, Columbus married Mariah Watson. Their 13 kids were brought up on the land – Marshtown – where the preserve stands today. Many members of the Graham Marsh family continue to live on the land around the preserve.
Giving Back is Second Nature
Graham’s family has also played key roles in the development and launch of GMNP, furthering the preserve’s generational legacy and impact. His wife, Beverly, serves as the GMNP’s chief administrative officer. His son, Palmer, a sales representative in the pharmaceutical industry, and daughters Toni and Taylor also have played a key role in the development and launch of GMNP, only compounding Tony’s joy in the GMNP’s generational legacy and impact.
Taylor, an environmental scientist, lends expertise drawing from her experience managing two other nature preserves in St. Petersburg, Florida. Tony, who works at Solera, provides development and related operational support.
Now open to the public, the preserve is ideal for tours and exploration. Visitors can relax and connect with nature in the vicinity of century-old majestic oak and pine trees to pecans and sweet gums, paved pavilions and a refurbished well. Magnolias and fruit trees dot the mile-long trail around the preserve’s perimeter. If you’re lucky, you might even see a deer or turkey crossing!
Creating Inclusive Communities
The preserve’s ability to impact people of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life is not lost on Graham, who has supported and advanced Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts throughout his 30+ year career.
“The preserve is about creating and building welcoming spaces…the manifestation of my years of DEI work,” he said.
Today, Graham serves as Executive Vice President and Head of Sales for North America at Solera. In his work, Graham is most proud of efforts which focus on social responsibility, ensuring Solera is continuously striving to impact positive changes in DEI practices throughout the vast automotive ecosystem.
“Making corporate America more diverse comes naturally and easy for me, and I’m very, very passionate about this work,” he said.
Education is Key
“We’re opening eyes,” he said. “We are not yet where we want to be, but we are definitely making strides and moving in the right direction. I’m at the right place.”
Graham noted Solera is fully committed to DEI efforts.
“That’s a powerful foundation that keeps us motivated and driven. They believe in big things [ahead]. We’re just getting started,” he said.
When Graham finds time to return to the area and walk the preserve, he gives thought to the significance of this tangible gift his family is sharing with the world for generations to come.
It’s hard for me to put into words; the fact that we are preserving the land, sharing the land with the local community, and making it available to other families, family members, folks in the community,” he said. “The way my mother, who is turning 82 in June, lights up when we visit the preserve and when she talks about it… It’s been one of my life’s greatest joys.”