A dark look at gardens and landscapes
A collaboration between a group of local libraries and a gardening club recently brought attention to a lesser-known aspect of black history with a presentation on “The Gardens of Black America.”
Co-sponsored by the Suburban Garden Club of Cheshire and the Friends of Cheshire Public Library, the speaker was Abra Lee, horticulturist, historian and writer specializing in the history of black gardens. His new book, which will be published in the fall, is called “Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers and Growers.”
Lee’s recent presentation to a local audience fulfills one of the big goals of Black History Month: to explore and learn. While the iconic images, stories, and facts of black history are important touchstones, we must continue to build on this foundation, deepening and broadening our knowledge.
As reported for the Record-Journal by Joy VanderLek, Lee’s speech brought to light many examples of how “black Americans were great agrarians.”
Lee described a post-Civil War era when formerly enslaved black people returned to gardens they had worked hard to create, returning to burnt-out antebellum homes to save heritage plants, such as roses. .
“They did the beautification work,” Lee said, making it clear that while slaves didn’t want to garden in bondage, the results of their labor could bring them satisfaction. “We sometimes forget that these are people – they loved and laughed and had family and friends, and still had lives despite the horrific conditions.”
Lee referred to a study of the black landscape, in Jim Crow times, by Dr. H. Hamilton Williams of Cornell University. Her work describes how “there is hardly a house without flowers in a tin can or tires used as edging”.
She said that while black gardens take all forms, formal and informal, this particular type of gardening is what architects and landscape professionals call “black vernacular landscapes” or folk gardens, where all plants and other available resources are used.
Discarded items, once used for laundry or cooking, have become part of the garden and can be symbolic, carrying historical significance to the family. White flowers planted in strollers can symbolize youth, life and death. The wheels symbolize the circle of life.
Lee’s presentation took the audience beyond the familiar. She brought together a new way of looking at gardens by combining an unsung aspect of black history with a fresh look at what a landscape can reveal.
By hosting Abra Lee, the Friends of Cheshire Library and the Suburban Garden Club have provided an opportunity to better understand the talents, culture and contributions of black gardeners and to help us better appreciate one of the fundamental human experiences. – work the soil and create a parcel of beauty – that unites us.