When the history of American gardening is told, the contributions of Black Americans are often overlooked. My guest this week, horticulturist and writer Abra Lee, is working to rectify that, and she joins me to highlight a few of the little-known stories that deserve to be shared.
Abra researches Black garden history and raises awareness of the subject through her website, ConquerTheSoil.com, as well as through social media and speaking engagements. In September 2023, Timber Press will publish Abra’s first book, “Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers.”
Abra is from Georgia, born and raised. She grew up in Atlanta and spent weekends at her family’s farm in Barnesville, Georgia, which she describes as “dirt road country.” Abra’s great-grandfather built the farm, and Abra’s mother was raised there. “That is where I got my love of gardening and agriculture and horticulture,” she says. She recalls her aunts growing flowers in the yard, and her uncle dropping off doorstep deliveries of fresh vegetables.
Another early horticultural influence for Abra was her father, who was the director of parks for the City of Atlanta when she was a child. He would take her on rides through city parks and cemeteries.
When Abra went to college, it wasn’t her original intent to major in horticulture. She often changed her pursuits as a child — from tennis, to golf, to art, etc. — and always had her parents’ support, and likewise, in college, she changed majors a number of times. One day, while riding the Auburn University campus bus, she noticed students outside with clipboards taking notes. They were the horticultural students, and she was jealous that they got to work and study outside under trees on a beautiful fall day.
With her parents’ support, she changed her major to horticulture. She credits her parents with seeing the big picture and knowing her horticulture degree would take her beyond commercial landscaping.
Abra did get her start in commercial landscaping, with the Russell Landscape Group. She went on to become an arborist with the City of Atlanta Department of Parks, and then got her big break as landscape manager at Atlanta Airport. She was then hired by George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas and worked there for a few years before returning to Georgia.
In 2019, Abra was selected by Kennett Square, Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens for a 13-month leadership in public horticulture fellowship. “They changed my life literally overnight,” she says.
Abra was chosen for a small, elite group to get experience, exposure and connections that are not replicable anywhere else. The Longwood Fellows studied negotiation and strategic leadership at the University of Michigan, learned to work with boards and nonprofits, and even met with a stylist to learn what colors work best for them. Abra’s fellowship also included research at Château de Villandry in France, though that trip was cut short by COVID.
The fellowship truly opened many doors for Abra and helped her star to rise. One example of Abra’s notoriety is she was recently asked to be the commencement speaker at the Conway School, a graduate program for landscape planning and design in Conway, Massachusetts.
Before proceeding any further with this week’s topic, I want to take a moment to let you know that I have a new book coming out this year, and it’s available for pre-order now. The title is “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest,” and I’m very excited for you to read it. It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
The Inspiration for ‘Conquer the Soil’
Around 2015, Abra was reading the book “The Souls of Black Folk,” a 1903 essay collection by W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. The essays called on the United States to make the promises of the American dream possible to all people.
In one of the essays, Du Bois wrote about the gifts that enslaved Africans brought across the Middle Passage: the gift of story and song, the gift of spirit and the gift of strength and brawn, “which was the ability of the enslaved Africans to conquer the soil,” Abra says.
When she read the words “conquer the soil,” they rose up off the page. She decided that’s what she would name her horticulture company.
Abra says her mother and the late renowned eccentric Atlanta garden designer Ryan Gainey had instilled in her the importance of learning her history — not just Black history in terms of civil rights but also as it relates to gardening.
She considered Ryan a mentor. She recalls visiting Ryan’s garden with her mother and asking Ryan how she could get to be on his level. He told her, “You need to know your history.”
It was Abra’s mother who explained that Ryan didn’t mean “know history,” but “know your history” — the Black, Southern journey of horticulture.
“I just thought I got dropped in the airports and I was the first,” she says. “But you realize you’re not the first and you come from a rich history. And that is what got me on that journey.”
Her mother, a historian and brilliant woman, impressed upon her that she can’t separate horticulture, agriculture and landscape in America from the Black experience. She had to read both histories and study them together. That’s what led her to read “The Souls of Black Folk.”
Now, everything’s come full circle. Abra was invited to teach Black garden history at her alma mater, Auburn University. With her students, her “Dynamic Nine,” she visited the Tuskegee University archives (in Alabama not far from Auburn). For anyone who loves horticulture and agriculture, “Tuskegee’s archives will blow your mind,” she says. It even has on display a Christmas card hand-painted by George Washington Carver. There are letters from Booker T. Washington approving the work of David Augustus Williston, who became the first professionally trained African American landscape architect.
“It is surreal,” she says, “the things that you learn there, the things that you get to see, the documents that you get to touch.” She recommends it as a bucket-list item for gardeners. “Tuskegee is the epicenter of Southern agriculture,” she adds. “It really is. It may not be at the forefront like it should be in 2022, but we can’t take from its history and from its greatness and what it’s done for this country and for this world.”
Shining a Light: Effie Lee Newsome
Abra is shining a light on early heroes of landscape design and horticulture who are, in many cases, not well known today despite the very important roles they played and the contributions they made.
One of those underappreciated figures is Effie Lee Newsome, a Harlem Renaissance writer and a librarian, naturalist, birder and garden lover. “She’s one of the iconic figures in American horticulture that my students study,” Abra says. In 1940, Newsome wrote “Gladiola Garden,” a book of children’s nature poetry, specifically with Black children in mind. The cover, featuring children hugging oversized gladiolas, is by Harlem Renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones, who went on to launch the art department at Howard University, the famous HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) in Washington, D.C.
Newsome wrote for The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, and W. E. B. Du Bois was her editor. She wrote specifically for children. At one point, Anne Spencer — another Harlem Renaissance writer and the namesake of the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia — wrote to Du Bois encouraging him to publish Newsome’s poetry in a book. The book, “Gladiola Garden,” was eventually published by Associated Press Publishers, the publishing house of Carter G. Woodson, the man who founded Negro History Week, which went on to become Black History Month.
Newsome’s writing compared the various colors of gladiolas to the various colors of black and brown children and allowed them to see themselves in nature, Abra says. “While lynchings are actively going on in the South, and there’s this racial tension in America, she’s using nature to show, hey, you deserve this: You deserve beauty, you deserve luxury, you deserve flowers. you deserve vegetables, you deserve to just escape into this. You’re a child and these are gifts to you as well.”
At the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show in June, Abra’s students are designing a show garden based on the writing of Effie Lee Newsome, who was born in Philadelphia.
Celebrating Pioneering Black Virginian Women And Gardeners
This month, Abra is going to Lynchburg to celebrate the 90th anniversary of a group that was originally known as the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia, and later called the Federated State Garden Clubs. The celebration will take place at the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, where Martin Luther King Jr. visited and spent the night.
On April 22nd, 1932, a group of Black Virginian women gathered at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, and formed a federated garden club that united individual clubs across the state. The group held horticulture shows, planted trees and beautified highways and post offices in the decades since its founding and also held the city accountable to fill potholes and organized people to vote, Abra says.
Conquer the Soil: The Book
In her upcoming book, Abra will share many more stories: Black women who owned nurseries, entomological artist Charles William Costello in Ohio, award-winning Rose Parade float designers, and others. Abra is excited to share these forgotten stories with a new generation.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Abra Lee. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Do you know any unsung heroes of American horticulture? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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Conquer The Soil on Twitter: @conquerthesoil
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