Listen: The Influencers
One of the happier highlights from the dumpster fire of a year called 2020 came back in July, when Beyoncé released “Black Is King,” a visual album and love letter to Africa. During this 85-minute unapologetic celebration of Black joy, Queen Bey states, “To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist.” Black women in ornamental horticulture have lived without reflection for so long, I wonder if garden historians believe they existed. In the few times their legacy has been acknowledged, it is usually summed up as one word: slave. To condense their life’s work into a title that was forced upon them is beyond a disservice. We can never erase the stain of slavery in the United States. As Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries so deftly wrote, it is “our country’s origin.” What we can do is add to the legacy of enslaved peoples’ lives and honor the women who established our country’s horticultural aesthetics with the professional titles they deserve; show their faces; and make sure their story is never forgotten.
Ms. Phoebe and the Tidy Swept Yard
When antebellum home were burned and deserted and their gardens ruined by soldiers, they were there: expert propagators knowing just how much root or stem to take as cuttings and how to harvest seeds. In little plots of land, they bred new specimens from the parent stock, preserving rare flowers from Europe as the Civil War came to an end.
In 1870, when South Carolina’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens was no longer able to rely on agriculture as its primary income source, they were also there: formerly enslaved Black women. Serving as uncompensated “tour guides,” these original caretakers helped save landscapes they built for free, former plantations rebranded as public spaces.
Who else but a bona fide plantswoman could lead you down sandy paths and swampy land along the Ashley River, pointing out native rhododendron and azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), eastern sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), jessamine (Gelsemium spp.) and spiraea (Spiraea spp.)? Who else could deftly navigate magnolias (Magnolia spp.), palms (Sabal spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.) adorned in Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), through fields with blooms of every hue — seemingly haunted by ghosts wary of those who trouble the flowers?
“They” were people employed in the garden, such as Magnolia’s own “Aunt” Phoebe (pictured above). She wasn’t really their aunt, but was referred to as such because older Black women during the time weren’t shown respect or allowed honorific titles such as “Mrs.” or “Madame.” (We see you, “Aunt” Jemima.) Some change is easy to enact, as simple as our choice of words. The least we can do is add some respect to her name: That’ll be Ms. Phoebe from here on out.
Ms. Phoebe’s image gives clues as to why horticultural contributions such as hers — and those of people like her — were so handily dismissed. She is dark skinned, poor and a woman. She is dressed like the caricature “mammy,” a style popular with white tourists at the turn of the 20th century. Is that what makes it impossible for us to believe in her expert botanical knowledge?
Still, Ms. Phoebe delivered a creative gift, the swept yard. This practical landscape feature is dirt on the surface of the ground that has been lovingly smoothed with a broom (likely made of dried straw, liana or palm). Ms. Phoebe’s African ancestors invented this garden feature, and she surely helped disseminate it.
Most common from the antebellum era to the 1950s, swept yards in Black landscapes were a matter of pride. In “No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work,” authors Grey Gundaker and Judith McWillie describe swept yards as being “as combed and groomed as human hair.” They were a mark of beauty that showed attention to detail. Yard were even swept as a safety feature to deter intruders by making footprints conspicuous: One never knew who might come around looking for trouble.
This tradition was visible in my own family. As a child, I remember my Aunt Lois meticulously sweeping the yard of our family farm in Barnesville, Georgia. Zenlike, she would walk backward from her porch, past the native pine, hickory, oak and eastern red cedar trees of the Piedmont (Pinus spp., Carya spp., Quercus spp. and Juniperus virginiana, respectively). Her wide, deliberate brushstrokes swept away debris and chicken tracks, exposing a stunning red dirt surface.
The “Handbook of the Negro Garden Club of Virginia” is still one of the few texts to acknowledge Black women like Aunt Lois, who used the resources at hand to achieve success in garden clubs. It states, “It is to the everlasting credit of the women … that they have done so much with so little, using not only native shrubs, flowers and trees for the improvement of planting, but also using other native resources, both human and material, to secure the results they need.”
Much like xeriscaping today, which places local soil, rocks and stone prominently in landscapes, swept yards highlighted beautiful natural elements such as the color of the earth. (Somewhat similarly, the Wildflower Center employs regionally sourced sandstone and limestone in its structures, as well as mulch made from Texas pecan shells in its gardens.)
I think about Ms. Phoebe and my Aunt Lois having a wide lens of what the term “native” in the garden means — not limited to the plants around them, but using other indigenous natural materials too, whatever was at hand.
“Grandmama” and the Aesthetic of Freedom
Harlem Renaissance writer, artist, naturalist and ecopoet Effie Lee Newsome was early to recognize the unacknowledged talent of the elder Black woman as a garden designer, the old-fashioned “Grandmama.” Her writing (much of which appeared in The Crisis, the W.E.B Du Bois–edited NAACP magazine) bore witness to their artistic contribution to the American landscape, providing rich and rare descriptions of these historic plantings. It was a stark contrast to how most Black gardens were perceived at the time: Rather than disdain them for being messy or too wild, she recorded their joy, exuberance and playful disorder.
Newsome depicted a striking visual riot, plants deliberately mingled to create unique backgrounds: a profusion of blooms in hues of deep rosy red, candy-heart pink, bold yellow and brown, purple and white sat atop “wandlike stems” while other, complementary plants grew low. In Grandmama’s garden, all manner of flowers mixed together, pushed into a corner by a ramshackle, whitewashed fence; all seemed happy to be there. Among them were native verbenas (Glandularia and Abronia spp.), irises (Iris spp.) and sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) alongside non-native, introduced plants such as bleeding hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), dwarf nasturtiums (Tropaeolum minus), garden geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) and hollyhocks (Alcea spp.). Newsome’s observation of the thoughtfulness and variety of plant palette within these gardens was acute.
It’s easy to feel reverence in the way she describes Grandmama’s vines: “morning glory [Ipomoea spp.] growing carefree — sometimes hidden, sometimes visible, meeting sweet-smelling honeysuckle [likely invasive Lonicera japonica] in a fond embrace,” the mélange transforming a “mere dilapidated fence into an archless rainbow.” Whew, chile! If this garden doesn’t excite you, none ever will.
Newsome’s subject, a Black grandmother, is a self-taught designer who could’ve instructed a gardening master class. And she wasn’t alone. But because the Grandmama aesthetic comes from those who never went to horticulture or design school, it doesn’t count in our country’s one-sided horticulture history. Yet Newsome’s rich and rare account shows a deep interest in garden design evident among these communities.
Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Wildflower Center, agrees Grandmama was onto something: “These Black gardeners understood that plants themselves don’t define a space. It’s how you design and maintain the space that matters, and colloquial gardens are designed spaces.” The Center’s cultivated native beds are sometimes perceived as weedy or unkempt by guests who expect botanic gardens to be more organized. But, as in Grandmama’s garden, DeLong-Amaya says, “The perceived haphazardness is intentional — mostly — and deeply thought out.”
The elder Black woman gardener refused the restrained, formal European style. Geometric shapes were too stiff; such vividly green grass appeared artificial, revolting even. She rejected such control of the landscape. Her people were in bondage for hundreds of years, why would they want to follow such restrictive rules? They demanded freedom and so did their gardens.
Black Container Gardeners and the Birth of Shabby Chic
Black academics and intellectuals of the early to mid-1900s, such as Dr. H. Hamilton Williams and Zora Neale Hurston, recorded their own assessments of Black gardens. Williams observed herbs cultivated in tin cans and clumps of flowers in beds outlined by old automobile tires. Hurston similarly wrote of bottles turned neck down to form borders around flower beds and walkways. Never ones to waste, Black gardeners, typically women, were hip to reuse long before it was trendy.
Lady Bird Johnson was herself witness to the garden aesthetic of Black America: “When I go into the poorest neighborhoods,” she said, “I look for the flash of color — a geranium in a coffee can, a window box set against the scaling side of a tenement, a border of roses struggling in a tiny patch of open ground.” She was likely referencing landscapes such as those in Anacostia, a Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where Mrs. Johnson spent much time working on her beautification initiative.
Now we celebrate these same artifacts in design magazines, using all manner of buzzwords: “bric-a-brac,” “upcycled,” “repurposed,” “vintage,” “quirky” and retro.” Despite Black gardens being the blueprint for such modern day descriptors, seeing a Black person’s yard associated with these elements in a major gardening publication, even today, is like seeing a unicorn.
These gardens were not beyond severe critique in their time, even amongst their own people. Williams, who earned a Ph.D. in horticulture from Cornell (and was editor of the aforementioned “Handbook of the Negro Garden Club of Virginia”), described them as “sporadic,” “derelict,” “deplorable,” and “lacking in unity, uniformity and thoughtful design.” He also noted that there was hardly a Black home without containers, citing an inadequate amount of land as a key factor in their consistent presence. Considered an eyesore in giant lard cans, clothes baskets, buckets and tin basins, planted containers were criticized (by many, not just Williams) as unlovely collections of homely vessels.
Regardless of favor, Williams was correct that the “land” Black gardeners owned was kept in pots. These were, in fact, gardens on the go. They could move with one under the darkness of night sky and glow of moonlight — should trouble find its way across that swept yard.
Container gardens are popular for related reasons today: They are mobile and affordable, open to renters with small balconies or windowsills. And they invite creativity, asking what plant best complements a particular reused vessel. The Center’s DeLong-Amaya draws a connection to native plants, noting that they “have historically been more accessible in terms of cost, availability and means to propagate, such as through seed.” In this way, both container gardens and native plants have been a gateway by which many have started their gardening journey.
Reflecting Back and Looking Forward
Where do we go from here? First, we must consider the surely very complicated feelings of enslaved Black women, as well as those who were free yet living during the segregated era of Jim Crow. For some, gardening may have been a temporary way to “escape” the anguish of slavery, much like Negro spiritual songs. But of course it’s also absurd to assume most enslaved people were natural gardeners or even enjoyed it.
Though dismissed as scraps, we must be clear: Black women have always been necessary to the fabric of our country. Their hands and bodies have helped sow the glorious patchwork that is horticulture in the United States. From the influence of Ms. Phoebe on the centuries-old gardens of Magnolia Plantation to the representation of freedom in Grandmama’s gardening style, our country’s garden aesthetics are interwoven with its history, which includes the Black experience.
Today more than ever, we must reckon with this. As a Black woman, horticulturist and self-taught scholar of Black garden history, I came to the proud realization that I, too, am part of this rich narrative. All of our stories are worth telling.
Following Beyoncé’s lead, we must research, reflect on — and remember — the impact of these women; that is how we recognize their existence.
But the truth is, Black history is often oral history. For centuries it was illegal for Black Americans to read and write. At best, getting caught earned you a whipping, maybe the loss of a hand or an eye. Unlucky ones lost their lives. Who would have been willing to risk it all and chronicle the life of someone like Ms. Phoebe? Though much of this history is lost, there is still much to be unearthed.
Following Beyoncé’s lead, we must research, reflect on — and remember — the impact of these women; that is how we recognize their existence. As a nation, think about the Olympic-level revisionist gymnastics we have done to bend, stretch and flip the truth, to ignore the impact of an entire population of gardeners with expert hands in the soil, cultivating growth. How far out of our way have Americans gone to avoid calling these women what they have always been: head gardeners, floriculturists, horticulturists and landscape designers. You can be enslaved (or formerly so) and still be all of the above. One does not negate the other.
Listen: Black Women, Green Thumbs
Black Women, Green Thumbs:
Austin’s first Black women’s gardening club
Black horticultural traditions made their way to Texas, as well, and are reflected in Austin’s rich garden history. In fact, a 1950s reporter for the American Statesman (later the Austin American-Statesman) once wrote that Black people possessed “some of the greenest thumbs in the world.” This isn’t a surprising statement. Enslaved Africans were brought to this country in bondage not because they lacked talent. It was, in part, because they were exceptional cultivators of the soil. Black Americans’ ancestors were from areas such as modern day Senegal and The Gambia — agriculturally rich communities rooted in farming, as described in “Dream a World Anew,” a book on the African American experience edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill.
Maybe the reporter had heard whispers about those li’l old ladies who used to garden at the King’s Daughters Home, a facility for senior Black women in the early 1900s. Located on the 1200 block of Rosewood Avenue (across the street from where Rosewood restaurant stands today), each woman had her own small plot of ground to nourish. The garden thrived on a lot of hard work and an equal helping of love. It sometimes took the women all day to irrigate their plots; they carried water in buckets and tin cans to hydrate their vegetables, roses and other flowers.
In the spring of 1954, a new generation of gardeners gathered at the home of Alice T. King (no known relation) to organize the city’s first Black women’s garden club. They were likely inspired by the rich history of Black garden clubs in the South. (The mother of them all, the Negro Garden Club of Virginia, started with seven chapters and was officially organized in 1932.)
The Austin ladies’ purpose was to promote interest and concern in the community for improved yards and home beautification. Though Alice King’s home is long gone, a picture of the charter officers was taken and original member names were recorded — a small bit of credit in a sorely lacking history.
Abra Lee is a speaker, writer and owner of Conquer the Soil, a platform that combines Black garden history and pop culture to raise horticultural awareness. She is an alumna of the Longwood Gardens Society of Fellows, a global network of public horticulture professionals.