To celebrate Black History Month, OSGF is honoring the foundational work of African American individuals and communities whose contributions are integral to the history, culture, and practice of garden design, landscape architecture, and regenerative agriculture.
At the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, we admire the countless garden clubs around the country which have sprung up around a shared love of horticulture. But garden clubs can represent and celebrate much more than ornamental plants. Nowhere is the impact of such clubs on the identity and influence of an entire community more apparent than in the history of so-called ‘Negro Garden Clubs,’ which helped give organized voice to African American communities during the first half of the 20th Century.
This was particularly true in Virginia, which was home to the nationally influential Negro Garden Club of Virginia. The club was started in 1932 with just seven local chapters, but by 1943 had grown to include 65 chapters throughout the state. The expanse of clubs led to the 1943 “Handbook of the Negro garden club of Virginia,” which was published by the Hampton Institute.
In the introduction, the editor, H. Hamilton Williams, acknowledges that the Handbook satisfies two interests: one, the members’ profound desire to amass more gardening knowledge, and two, the persistent interest in Virginia’s Negro Garden Clubs from “gardening authorities throughout the country.” Including topics ranging from pest management to cut flower arrangements, the Handbook attests to the centrality of garden clubs to everyday African American life in the early 20th century.
These photographs, by Dorothea Lange, document African American sharecropper cabins in North Carolina. One includes a small, enclosed garden space, where the other shows potted plants on the porch. Where African American agricultural landscapes and gardens are a primary focus of study, flower gardens and yard designs go neglected. Photos from the Library of Congress.
Scholarship around African American environmental history and landscape tends to focus on agrarian legacies. There is a pronounced focus on plantation landscapes and systems, agriculture, and food gardens. Historical archaeologist Paul Mullins posits that African American gardens and yards are marginalized in environmental and landscape histories, in particular, those urban gardens of the early 20th century. Mullins explains that such gardens are neglected in scholarship because so few of them exist today. Segregation and unequal allocations of resources led to African American neighborhoods being intentionally neglected and forced into disrepair, then razed in the name of combating urban blight. Neighborhoods with homes and gardens were replaced by monolithic towers surrounded by insipid attempts at public space (see Pruitt Igoe). Not only were African American neighborhoods and gardens erased by this problematic and harmful transformation, but ultimately social and community networks were obliterated as well. Studying early 20th century African American gardens and gardening networks counters hegemonic narratives that enabled mid-century “renewal.”
The study of gardens and yards also centers women in the historical narrative. African American yards, often part kitchen garden and part ornamental garden, were typically part of the women’s domain. Likewise, women were the primary members of garden clubs. The Handbook acknowledges this, stating:
“It is to the everlasting credit of the women who have composed the membership 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 materials, to secure the results they need.”
By examining yards, and the arrangement of gardens and ornamental plantings within, we catch a glimpse at the ways African American families navigated urbanization, economic relations, gender roles, and the everyday material culture of the early 20th century.
An essay in the Handbook titled “Ten Years of Progress by the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia” and written by William M. Cooper and Asa C. Sims, lays out four great values of the garden clubs’ work. These include:
Home improvement and beautification
Improving race relations
Recreation and expression
Each of these “great values” has implications beyond what its humble description would suggest. On home improvement, the manual reads:
“We have succeeded in getting the majority of Negroes to beautify their homes and yards. At the same time, these citizens have become civic-conscious and have become voters.”
Additionally, one garden club member wrote in of their club’s accomplishments, saying “every member is voting.” Here we can see an underlying assumption that bettering the home improves the community. Not only does beautification improve the aesthetic experience of homes and yards, but it inspires individuals to civic-minded action; the garden becomes a gateway to broader civic and political engagement.
Following home improvement is community improvement, including “roadside planting, improvement of streets, the planting of highways and entrances to cities [...].” The manual posits that community development helps with “improving race relations” and likewise, improved race relations’ aid in community development. It reads:
“Wherever a club is established among the Negro women, the white women of the community have promptly offered their assistance in all phases of the work, from sharing of the seeds and plants up to getting the city and county officials to improve streets and roads. Undoubtedly, this is one of the highest forms of interracial cooperation; namely, where the two races are working on a common project without thinking about race, but rather of a common opportunity to build a more beautiful community for all.”
The final category, recreation and expression, retreats from the public sphere back into the private. The Handbook positions gardening as a provider of “opportunity for all types of mental and physical abilities” to gain emotional and spiritual well being. The garden, and by extension the land, is a teacher, an attainable source of pleasure, education, and expression for all.
Beyond the personal and interpersonal benefits suggested by these great values, impact of these clubs was quite tangible. The clubs often collaborated to provide public services withheld from African American communities as a result of systemic racism and segregation in civic, political, and economic spheres. In one of the Handbook’s essays titled “Ten Years in Review”, garden club members wrote in about their clubs’ major accomplishments. One gardener wrote “Our club was instrumental in having our mail delivered to our doors twice daily, instead of to rural boxes at the end of each street.” Another wrote, “We were instrumental in fostering several civic improvements, including curbing certain streets, improving outdoor privies and cleaning various ditches in Negro localities.” Yet another club member wrote that their club was responsible for the “smooth paving of Chapel to Rugby Streets, a distance of 25 city blocks, and the extension of bus transportation over this area.” In addition to improvements specific to African American communities, garden clubs were devoted to doing their part for the war effort (WWII). The Handbook includes multiple references to growing Victory Gardens and to gardening as an alternative form of recreation to those that use either fuel or rubber (important war time resources).
One Plus One Equals all Sorts of Things
An essay in the Handbook titled “One Plus One Equals all Sorts of Things” and written by the well known garden advisor of Better Homes and Gardens Magazine, Alfred C. Hottes, make recommendations for instilling a love of gardening in children. Hottes declares:
“through America we are realizing the importance of gardening for children. We are realizing not only that the fundamental knowledge of nature and gardens contributes toward an appreciation of these things all through our lives, but that it also teaches us some of the fundamental lessons which keep us in tune with the universe.”
He promotes the garden as an arena for play, exploration, and personal growth, as well as an avenue through which to teach children civic mindedness. With children, Hottes advises, we should approach gardening from the “standpoint of pride rather than work or labor.” By framing gardening as a collective means to help “keep the parks more beautiful” we can tap into the innate human desire to belong to and improve the communities in which we live and give children “a part in the responsibility.”
Hottes offers the following whimsical and delightful method to pique a child’s curiosity about the world of plants: “First, as soon as any child shows an interest in plants, tell him the simple names, explaining that plants have names even as persons or pets. [...] Tell him that the word gladiolus is derived from the same word as gladiator; that calendula comes from the same word as calendar, which is calenda, throughout the months, and the calendula blooms every month. Point out that the cockscomb really resembles the comb of a fowl, and that the name for delphinium derives from the dolphin because the buds resemble that aquatic animal. Columbine has always been the court jester, who wears a cap which resembles this flower.” Images are from the Oak Spring Garden Library collection and include botanical drawings of delphinium (dolphin), gladiolus (gladiator), and columbine (court jester).
In Cooper and Sims’ essay, they continue on to explain how a “new resource” they are working on is further developing the “present-day interest in our public schools in connecting themselves with community movements to improve community conditions. We may well expect the school teachers in the near future to play an increasing part in the promotion of garden club work.” School gardens are en vogue today and a popular part of connecting students to their environment and community. While school gardens are often talked about as an innovative pedagogical tool, similar programs were already in motion nearly 80 years ago in Negro Garden Clubs and African American schools.
So Brilliant With Colors
Dianne Glave’s excellent paper on African American garden history, appearing in the journal Environmental History, explains that garden clubs not only provided vital public places and services to African American communities, but “created distinctively African American spaces that simultaneously mimicked nature and rejected Euro-American control.” Women collected plants by trading seeds and cutting with neighbors and by collecting native plants from meadows and woodlands. They rarely acquired plants at once, which led to gardens that were asymmetric. Though some gardens appeared chaotic or haphazard, “the chaos of plants also created a diversity which reduced opportunities for weeds and pests to take hold.” To gain further gardening expertise women “trained with and participated in garden clubs through the federally funded Home Demonstration Service of the Cooperative Extension Service and private southern African American schools.” African American women “effectively blended gardening techniques that had come down from slavery and freedom with those taught by Home Demonstration agents” to create gardens that were “both new and old, with practices that integrated tradition with Progressive practice.” Glave concludes:
“African American women were the creative sources of gardening in their communities from slavery to the early twentieth century. By using yards in different ways, women took possession of them. They manipulated and interpreted the spaces for sustenance, comfort, joy, and sometimes profit.”
Glave, Dianne D. “'A Garden So Brilliant with Colors, So Original in Its Design': Rural African American Women, Gardening, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of an African American Environmental Perspective.” Environmental History, vol. 8, no. 3, 2003, pp. 395–411. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3986201.