Rural African American women, gardening, progressive reform, and the foundation of an African American environmental perspective

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

Glave, Dianne D

“Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength-in search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.”‘

Alice Walker, In Search of our Mother’s Gardens, 1967

TO PLANT their flower and vegetable gardens, African American women used their hands-darkly creviced or smoothly freckled; their arms-some wiry, others muscled; and their shoulders and backs-one broad and another thin. They dropped small seeds into the soil with their veined hands. They wrapped their arms around freshly cut flowers to decorate tables in their homes. They bent their shoulders and backs to compost hay, manure, and field stubble, and transplanted plants from the woods into their own yards. These women developed a unique set of perspectives on the environment by way of the gardens they grew as slaves and then as freedwomen. They continued these practices and exercised these perspectives into the early twentieth century. Rural African American women then joined these traditional ways of gardening with horticultural practices they learned from Home Demonstration Service agents and from the special programs developed in African American schools in the South.

An examination of these traditions and practices of gardening changes the reading scholars have had of African American participation in Progressive-era agricultural reform and also reveals the outlines of a rural African American environmental perspective at the time. Progressives envisioned national agricultural reforms that subjugated the discrete and nuanced expertise of local actors to models of bureaucratic efficiency and skill. Yet African American women developed an expertise from community knowledge, from their own interpretations of agricultural reforms, and from the training they received in horticulture in the Cooperative Extension Service, African American schools and other places. Progressive era scholars have missed the critical role of African American women gardeners in Progressive reform efforts, or at least have not viewed the participation of African Americans in these efforts through the critical lens of gender.2

These women cultivated with simple tools, a hoe, trowel, or shovel in one hand and seeds or fertilizer in the other hand. But they gardened within a gendered and racial milieu that gave the application of these simple instruments of skill a complex social potency. Rural African American women and men often supported one another in complementary roles and with strategies that were designed to support the family unit. Some women met their own and sometimes their family’s needs by harvesting vegetables for meals, and by planting shrubs and cultivating flowers to create more appealing homes.

The value of the women’s contributions to household productivity was often invisible to Progressive reformers, who practiced enormous condescension in their efforts to uplift the poor. African American reformers shared this condescension, making women special objects of disdain. Thomas Monroe Campbell, an agent for the Negro Cooperative Service, was haughtily dismissive of rural women, characterizing them as “too careless as to the loud manner in which they act in the streets and in public places … and unduly familiar with men.” But ultimately, African American women in the rural South controlled how and where they gardened, and by implication, why they gardened. They drew upon rich traditions of gardening knowledge and took what they would from Home Demonstration Work and the education programs of African American schools. This article explores this relationship between African American gardening and Progressive reform, but also asks how African American women cultivated their own gardens. Were African American women’s gardens expressions of self-interest or community experience and values, or both? Did the women blend community and Progressive influences in the gardens they made and used? How did the gardening practices of African American women in the early twentieth century rural South add up to an environmental ethic?3

Scholars of environmental history have yet to say much specifically about African American gardening practices. Yet southern environmental history, a scholarship in infancy, provides some useful context for understanding the experiences of these African American women. A lacunae about gardening also exists in this scholarship. The useful works in developing a context for understanding southern gardening traditions include Albert Cowdrey’s comprehensive environmental history of the American South, Mart Stewart’s work on the landscapes of slaves and masters in the tidewater South, and Pete Daniel’s study of the evolution of the sharecropping system in the post-Emancipation South. These provide important insights into the relationship between African Americans and the environment in the nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century South. But except for an analysis of the landscapes that emerged from the creative subsistence practices of slaves and a section on the gardening practices of plantation mistresses in Stewart’s book, these studies say little about the relationship between gender, ethnicity, and gardening practices.4

Other historians have traced the geography of significant spaces, including gardens, for southern African Americans. John Michael Vlach explores slave spaces in his architectural interpretation of antebellum slavery in The Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. Slaves re-contoured the landscape, more than Euro-Americans understood, by the very placement and types of slave buildings. Though Vlach only intimates this, yards as well as cabins were significant spaces of meaning for slaves. Richard Westmacott looks more carefully at the living spaces proximate to African cabins in African American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South. He describes gardens as vital places and spaces of survival, spirituality, subsistence, ornamentation, work, and leisure. Vlach and Westmacott offer tantalizing glimpses of environmental perspectives critical to this study.5

At the cross section of gender and labor in African American women’s history, Jacqueline Jones argues that African American women and society defined their roles in the gendered and separate spheres that were social commonplaces in Victorian America. The African American community valued the productivity of women, which reinforced their commitment to work in the home and garden. Deborah Gray White, in Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, counters by saying that slave women and perhaps freed women were not passive and proper Victorian women at home and work. Whether accepting or rejecting Victorian mores, African American men and women worked together in complementary roles that must be seen as viable family economic strategies within the context of racism in the segregated South.6


AFRICAN AMERICAN and Euro-American gardens also possessed distinctive characteristics much like the roles of African American men and women. Though Vera Norwood argues that women of both groups were “responsible for designing and maintaining the yard and its ornamental garden” according to gender, ethnicity was as important as gender in shaping the unique gardens of African Americans. These featured flowers, shrubs, trees, and plants that were purchased individually, accepted as gifts, or cultivated from cuttings. African Americans created colorful motifs from gifts and cast-offs. Euro-Americans could more readily buy several plants and group and organize them. African Americans relied on an oral tradition, unlike Euro-Americans whose expertise came from magazines and books. African American traditions were so ingrained that plants presented as gifts were associated with the giver.7

African American women manipulated and controlled their yards for multiple functions in slavery and then in freedom. Free range in which livestock could roam, or a pen, an extended kitchen from the house, cleaning and leisure spaces, swept areas, and pathways to the fields, woods, the slaveholder’s house, and fenced flower and vegetable gardens comprised overlapping spaces in the yard. Each function, each space was often fluid with little or no boundaries. Unlike most slaves, renters and owner-operators had some income and could purchase livestock, including chickens and hogs that were given free range of the yard. The women sought the shade and protection of trees from the sun and heat to prepare meals, feed and entertain family and friends, scrape pots, scrub dishes, wipe tables, beat rugs, and launder clothing. Children played and adults sought recreation throughout the yard, particularly in the shade. Outside the green spaces, women carefully swept clean any foliage, including weeds, creating a bare and austere yard. The pathways took the women beyond their homes and yards to the environs of the woods, fields, the big house, neighbors, and town.8

In these gardens, African American women planted vegetables, fruit, flowers, shrubs, trees, and plants in red clay, sandy, and dark loamy soils. They generally cultivated vegetable gardens on a side or to the back of the cabin for easy access. To keep out livestock, their partners probably built enclosures of tied stakes for gardens-less expensive than free range. Most women grew vegetable gardens primarily to sustain their families. They planted okra, milo, eggplant, collards, watermelon, white yam, peas, tomatoes, beans, squash, red peppers, onions, cabbage, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Others planted truck gardens and sold corn, cotton, peanuts, sweet potatoes, tobacco, indigo, watermelons, and gourds at the market for profit. African Americans also displayed flowers for everyone’s viewing and pleasure, beckoning neighbors to take a closer look or visitors to chat in the yard’s fragrance and color. The women looked out upon exquisite flowers including petunias, buttercups, verbenas, day lilies, cannas, chrysanthemums, iris, and phlox planted in the ground, old tires, bottles, planters, and tubs. They placed shrubs-roses, azaleas, altheas, forsythia, crepe myrtle, spirea, camellias, nandina, and wild honeysuckle-throughout the yard. Azaleas and roses were most commonly planted. The dogwood, oak, chestnut, pine, red maple, black locust, sassafras, hickory, willow, cottonwood, and redbud dotted the landscape. They chose ornamental plants that were self-propagating, along with annuals that were generally self-seeding. Colorful combinations of blues, reds, pinks, oranges, whites, and yellow often clashed with little or no sequencing. Placement was generally informal, where the gardeners could find space. A mix of color and placement resulted in a lack of symmetry and formal design. African Americans, including the women, simply could not afford to buy several shrubs, plants or flowers at the same time to create such symmetry.9

Women’s roles were transformed from slavery to sharecropping. Jacqueline Jones observes that African American men reinforced gender roles by hunting and fishing during slavery. Men were primarily responsible for cultivating the tiny household garden plots allotted to families by the slaveholder. They practiced conservation, tilling their own vegetable plots when time off from the slaveholder’s tasks allowed. Dating back to the antebellum period, slaves used organic farm methods such as composting, when they took or were given the opportunity to grow their own gardens. A Louisiana slave gardener also built birdhouses from hollowed gourds to attract nesting birds that protected vegetables from insects and other pests. The birdhouses, a modern fixture in suburban backyards, provided shelter for the birds that served as a natural pest control. Though most slave women did hunt or fish, they certainly must have assisted the men with the vegetable gardens planted primarily for family consumption. Some women tended flowers-feminine work in which they aesthetically enhanced and embellished their quarters with limited leisure time. One slave vividly remembered the leafy plants and bright blossoms encircling the family cabin: “Us live in a log house wid a little porch in front and de mornin’ glory vines use to climb ’bout it. When they bloom, de bees would come hummin’ ’round and suck the honey out de blue bells on the vines. I members dat well ‘nough, dat was a pleasant memory.'” Many women probably “dressed up” the exterior of their homes with blossoms.10

After slavery, Glenda Gilmore argues, educated African American women sought to establish partnerships with men “that maximized the potential and efficiency of both members, and they tended to do that by avoiding hierarchical ideas of male dominance and female subordination. Men and women were different, but they had complementary work to do; once trained for that work, women were anxious to establish domestic relationships that allowed them to get on with the job.” Similarly, rural African American women and men cooperated with one another, cultivating along gender lines: Men tended fields and women kept gardens. African American men produced cash crops to support their families after slavery was dismantled. Women expanded their roles by cultivating family vegetable patches, continuing to plant ornamental and flower gardens. Gardens served as a source of food for their families, a means of enhancing their homes, and, in some circumstances, a small source of revenue. Women improved their families’ nutrition by planting homegrown vegetables and saved money by limiting the purchase of store goods. African American women supplemented the pantry with turnip and collard greens, staples in their gardens. The women also created visual appeal in the feminine domain with flowers and ornamental plants outside their homes.11


THESE GARDENING traditions and the values of the women who practiced them were illuminated by their contact with Progressive reform. Rural women were reformers and the objects of reform, part of the national Progressive movement. Though fragmented, Progressives shared core themes: opposing abuses by private and government organizations, promoting social reform or justice, and promulgating the gospel of scientific efficiency. Of the three, scientific efficiency or the gospel of safe farming most influenced African American women who gardened. Using agricultural and conservation methods, they applied Progressive “principles of efficiency, scientific management, centralized control, and organized economic development” in rural housekeeping. Across the country, upper- and middle-class African American women formed their own Progressive organizations like the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, along with other local clubs. African American women served the community, pressuring dairies to supply pasteurized milk for infants, building libraries, and supporting homes for the elderly and orphans. In the South, Margaret Murray Washington called the first Tuskegee Woman’s Club meeting in 1895, and club members crossed social barriers to assist their poor sisters. Well-heeled women sought upward mobility and entree into exclusive social events. Club members also visited local women to teach them to care for their homes, children, and ultimately the community. Affluent African American women combined this elitism and service and were often condescending to their poor rural counterparts.12

Rural African American women who were agents, teachers, students, and housewives also gardened under the auspices of a broader Progressive agricultural reform. The 1914 Smith-Lever Act created the Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics, a branch of the Federal Extension Service, to promote the wise use of natural resources in forestry as well as in farming, and to offer rural families training and information on topics from bee keeping to women’s canning to boys’ pig clubs. The Extension Service persuaded farmers and their families across the country to implement scientific conservation methods such as turning under cover crops and applying fertilizers. Cover crops included crimson clover, generally planted in the off-season to protect the soil. The act ultimately included African Americans in these federally and state funded agricultural programs. The agency directed money and resources to white colleges catering to Euro-American farmers and creating a centralized racially tiered administration, classes, and services in agriculture and home economics. The agency assigned Cooperative Extension agents from the colleges to other groups such as African Americans. Although these colleges provided the central administration for the Cooperative Extension Service, individual agents traveled from farm to farm, while others worked in experiment stations.13

Booker T. Washington launched the prototype of the Negro Cooperative Extension Service at Tuskegee Institute. He reinforced the racial hierarchy of the Progressive period by promoting separate education and unequal employment in the trades and agriculture for African Americans. Sharing his vision with rural farmers in Alabama, Washington encouraged them to improve their farming methods. The Tuskegee Institute Movable School, which carted the latest farm and household implements around the countryside on a horse-drawn carriage, was used to demonstrate conservation techniques to local African American farmers. On 12 November 1905, Tuskegee appointed Thomas Monroe Campbell its first agent. Working with African American farmers, he traveled in the Movable School truck, loaned farm implements, set up displays for safe farming, and attempted to improve the health and homes of local sharecroppers and owner-operators. In ensuing years, Cooperative Extension agents like Campbell expanded the program throughout the country.14

Women both represented and were served by the Home Demonstration Work of the Negro Cooperative Extension Service. One hundred women worked as agents for Home Demonstration in the South in 1923. These salaried employees were selected and trained demonstrators who trained local women to improve their homes and yards. African American women worked in one hundred counties in eleven states, with approximately half in Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas. The agents modeled household and family healthcare to local African American women and girls in demonstration and club work. Agent Campbell minimized some of the women’s duties: “During certain months of the year there is little or no work for women. We urge upon every woman the raising of poultry and consequently, the production of eggs, the making of butter, the pickling, drying and canning of fruits, such as berries, plums, peaches, and apples, the cultivating of a garden and raising of bees. Let her sell her produce to the best advantage, reserving a portion for home use.” Campbell failed to acknowledge that rural women’s work was labor intensive throughout the year.15

The vigor of their activity was demonstrated in other ways as well. African American women completed 17,311 demonstrations in home beautification of lawns and flower gardens in 1920. The Cooperative Extension Service also documented that African American women cultivated 20,494 home vegetable gardens across the country in that same year. They grew personal vegetable and truck gardens, planted fruit trees and vines, and beautified their yard with flowers and ornamental plants. Agents also performed some rural engineering by building and remodeling homes and other buildings. Their engineering responsibilities probably extended to terracing and horizontal plowing in larger gardens. The women developed an expertise in gardening first in the community, and then applied the Progressive scientific housekeeping principles of cleanliness, thriftiness, and management of Home Demonstration work. The government trained African American women to cultivate flowers, vegetables, trees, and shrubs. Agents sponsored yard contests, provided training, and evaluated soil conservation and aesthetics under the aegis of Negro Beautification of Grounds. They sought to uplift lower-class African Americans by modeling home improvement, particularly the exteriors of homes. One agent said “practically every home has put forth some effort to have flowers around the place and much beauty has been added in the country-side by these patches of color.”16

African Americans practiced two types of gardening that conflicted with and paralleled Progressive agricultural techniques: mimicking nature and cultivating the row system. Some gardeners reinforced African and African American traditions in cosmology, an interpretation of the natural ordering of the universe of wilderness, settled spaces, and crossroads. Slaves and sharecroppers, and even members of the gardening clubs, created distinctively African American spaces that simultaneously mimicked nature and rejected Euro-American control. Though the gardens appeared chaotic, the chaos of plants also created a diversity which reduced opportunities for weeds and pests to take hold. Some gardeners sought ethical, moral, and spiritual enlightenment in these chaotic or wilderness spaces in a way much like their African ancestors.17

Zora Neale Hurston fictionalized just such an early twentieth century yard cared for by Missy May: “The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to door-step, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter place.” A Euro-American novelist also fictionalized an urban African American woman in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Kansas who kept “a half-pleasing, half-offending jumble of greenery and gleaming color, of bush and vine; of vegetable and blooming flower, of kitchen ware, crockery, and defunct household furniture.” This novelist disparagingly compared the yard to an African jungle, park, and dump. In Beaufort and Wayne counties North Carolina, an agent similarly critiqued African American women’s yards in a garden contest, concluding that the women kept their yards in disarray out of poverty. Though not overtly racist, the agent’s conclusion probably were based upon the racism of the period. Some observers, including Progressive Home Demonstration agents did not know or care that African and African American experience influenced some African American gardeners.18

Yet other African Americans planted symmetrical gardens, which met the goals of Progressive agricultural reform though they likely were rooted in older row-crop traditions. African Americans applied their own understandings, though, in their community appreciation of the “right way” for gardening. African Americans valued doing things properly by applying the “‘right way’ of arranging poles of beans, a ‘right way’ of building a potato bank.” Neighbors often competed in a friendly fashion, doing it the “right way,” using a uniform design, aesthetics, and old-fashioned labor. The North Carolina “Richmond County Yard Improvement Contest” agents reinforced this approach: “Instead of trying to judge all of the yards before and after they are planted, we decided to offer one point for every shrubbery plant planted in a permanent place by next fall, but to encourage their planting them in the right places. I have had demonstration in planting all over the county and have particularly stressed foundation planting. All of the women who are on the committee are interested in flowers and the majority of them have well planted lawns … This contest includes Euro-American and colored homes as the colored yards detract from the view as much as the others. This will enable every home to feel that they can make some effort to beautify their yard and community.” Gardeners integrated Progressive gardening ideas with older traditions within a context of community expectations about what was right and what was not in the garden.19

African American women transplanted flowers, shrubs, and trees from the surrounding woods into their yards, and used gardening styles both from the community and from the repertoire of Progressive agricultural reform. Jacqueline Jones documented an early-twentieth-century community tradition practiced by African American women who dug up woodland flowers to permanently improve their cabins. They transplanted azaleas, wild roses, honeysuckle, and dogwoods in their yards. A Beaufort County agent praised poor African American women who practiced frugality by collecting roots in the woods in Home Demonstration. The agent also criticized the women’s homes before they “borrowed” plants from local woods, imitating nature, to cover “unsightly porches.” Similarly, agents in Wake County, North Carolina, sponsored a contest for thirty African American and Euro-American participants who transplanted local shrubs and small trees from the swamps to their yards, creating beautiful exteriors. Some planted long leaf pines, including Lob Lolly, along with holly. They cultivated inexpensive native shrubs, making their yards more attractive. Smaller plants included wax myrtle, yucca, cedar, laurel, sumac, and poinsettia. According to another agent, women doggedly scouted out plants, trees, shrubs, and flowers: “In some places I may have made beggars of the women, in other places I have sent them into swamps in crowds, but for it all I am sure, we will have a more beautiful county and a more satisfied home-loving people.”20

African Americans also developed a garden aesthetic based on traditional and Progressive influences. According to Richard Westmacott, women gardeners cultivated flower patches for visual appeal: “The flower yard results from some inner conviction to create something beautiful. … The impression was that these yards were gestures of graciousness in otherwise desperately hard lives.” Home Demonstration agents contributed to this aesthetic by evaluating segregated neighborhood yard improvements, with a focus on aesthetics, in the North Carolina Forsythe Improvement Contest. The judges reviewed aesthetics, emphasizing borders and foundations, and recommended that the women use native shrubs, probably borrowed from the local woods. An agent observed that, “Many walks were re-arranged, flower beds moved from lawns, lawns sowed in grass, unsightly buildings removed, houses painted, steps repaired, shrubbery grouped on corners and at entrances to grounds, and some terracing done.” The agents encouraged African American women to make their homes and yards beautiful by starting or continuing to plant flowers.21

The advances Progressive reformers believed they were introducing into African American households also were integrated into long-practiced traditions of conservation. Slaves composted oak leaves with fire ash and applied barnyard manure and human waste to fertilize their gardens. African Americans continued to use conservation techniques in the early twentieth century. In Alabama, Onnie Lee Logan, an African American midwife, reminisced about her mother’s garden: “We had three big gardens. String beans, butter beans, turnip greens, English peas, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, okra, ever’thing. Tomatoes, three or four different kinds of squash … love, care, and share, that’s what we did. We had it and my daddy and mother they shared with the ones that didn’t have it. Mother would send a piece and share.” Her mother’s resourceful diversification of vegetables made good gardening sense, and translated also into a sense of community and social responsibility that was common among rural African Americans. Lacey Gray from Longleaf, Louisiana, said her mother fed her healthy food from the garden: “Mother never used pesticides or chemical fertilizers and we never had problems with insects either. Used cow manure on big crops and chicken manure on the kitchen garden.” Mary Lee from Shreveport, Louisiana, reminisced about her mother who used laundry water to fertilize the vegetables and herbs in her yard.22

Progressive reform efforts, conscious or not, joined or built on these traditions, which included numerous examples of applications of conservation and agricultural techniques in Home Demonstration gardening. In the Richmond County Yard Improvement Contest, ten women’s and seven girl’s clubs competed in home garden contests and continued to practice agricultural and conservation techniques. One contestant, Sally Moore, an African American woman and club president in the Hilly Branch, North Carolina, community, practiced diversification and planted thirty-four different vegetables in what might have been a truck farm garden, and produced a ten-pound head of cabbage. She probably fertilized her garden with compost and manure. In demonstrations on how to root plants, agents suggested the women ask one another for cuttings from plants, a gardening method borrowed from agriculture. In addition, they evaluated the efforts by the women in conservation and agricultural techniques in terracing for drainage and maximizing space for planting, along with planting and maintaining plants. They recommended that women use native grasses to protect against wind and water erosion. Two other women of unknown ethnicity competed for prizes. Mrs. Roscoe Johnson of Wake County won a $15 second prize for a garden made with “good soil.” Mrs. Bryan Bizzell, a third place $10 winner, resurrected the beauty of her old homestead by using grass, flowers, shrubs, and other improvements to create “a lovely scene.” Other improvements might have included water and erosion control, along with fertilizing techniques using nitrate and manure, leaving fields fallow, and rotating crops, all based upon Progressive scientific conservation and agricultural techniques-some already based on traditional practices in the community.23

Participants in Home Demonstration took the initiative in planting their own gardens and practicing conservation and agricultural methods outside these competitions. Mrs. Clarence Vincent of Winterville diversified her North Carolina vegetable garden in a way typical of African Americans and Euro-Americans. She planted Irish and sweet potatoes, beans, and peas, which were stored and consumed in winter. During the rest of the year she cultivated lettuce, radishes, celery, carrots and cabbage, spinach, turnip greens, kale, collards, cabbage and mustard, turnips, rutabagas, carrots and parsnips. She further diversified her garden, mixing vegetables and fruits by planting collards, carrots, strawberries, blackberries, and figs. Women in Beaufort County, North Carolina’s Home Gardens Work also planted hotbeds and cold frames, and prepared the soil for “early and successive planting and frequent cultivation of the tried and true vegetables along with the introduction of a few new ones were stressed.” Mrs. W. H. Shavender, another North Carolina woman, diversified and fertilized two plots: “I tried beans, tomatoes, corn, beets, spinach, turnips, onions, pimentos, pepper and kale both with and without nitrate of soda. My ground was prepared exactly the same for both, same amount of stable manure, everything except the side dressing of Nitrate of Soda on one and not on the other. The yield was more than double with the soda and the plants and corn were not affected by the weather. The rows that had soda application stayed green and kept bearing even after the other was gone, especially so with beans. … I never intended to plant anything in my garden again without Nitrate of Soda. Last year I had lovely celery but this year it was killed completely by drought. Nitrate of Soda gives such a wonderful start while plants are young.” She also may have applied barnyard manure to restore soil fertility. The women continued a tradition in gardening, influenced by the community and the government.24


AFRICAN AMERICAN gardening traditions also were bolstered and reinforced by the education efforts initiated by the schools for African Americans that were founded after the emancipation of slaves. Education was of premier importance for freedmen and freedwomen, and they went to great lengths to encourage opportunities for learning. African American women had their own interests, and sought out more knowledge in gardening. They opened, supported, and attended their own segregated schools, to reduce high illiteracy among African Americans in the South. To promote and develop southern education after slavery, African American women struggled against a substandard education system of inadequate facilities, supplies, and teachers compared with Euro-American schools across the nation. The teachers taught in one-room buildings, which often were built for other purposes like sheltering livestock. A typical room was drafty and chilly in winter and humid and sweltering in summer. Schools paid African American teachers far less than their Euro-American counterparts, giving them salaries as low as $1.60 a month. Women, the primary pool for secondary teachers, generally lived on these subsistence wages, supplemented by room and board with a local family. In addition, teachers foraged for school supplies including chalkboards, books, pencils, and paper. W. E. B. DuBois described his own rural teaching experience in The Souls of Black Folk (1903): “There was an entrance where a door once was, and within, a massive rickety fireplace; great chinks between the logs served as windows. Furniture was scarce. A pale blackboard crouched in the corner. My desk was made of three boards, reinforced at critical points, and my chair, borrowed from the land-lady, had to be returned every night. Seats for the children-these puzzled me much. I was haunted by a New England vision of neat little desks and chairs, but, alas! The reality was rough plank benches without backs, and at times without legs.”25

Education for southern African Americans came from a number of outside sources, including northern philanthropists and societies, the Freedman’s Bureau, and state governments. For example, northern reformers were eager to work in partnership with southern freedmen and founded many of the first schools. Yearning for autonomy and self-improvement, African Americans also practiced self-help, hired and paid teachers, purchased building materials, and constructed their own schools and campus facilities. When Reconstruction ended, African Americans continued to improve and support education. State agricultural and mechanical colleges, along with private institutions, also served the community, offering longer and more extensive agricultural and home economic courses. The schools offered full-time agricultural school programs, which translated into education in the rural community, planned yard competitions, and home demonstrations.26

African American schools offered several options to their students including model yards and classes with practical and aesthetic applications. The school trained students on school grounds by cultivating model yards for teaching and profit. The model yards featured traditional elements found in a rural African American culture, including gardens, livestock, and laundering. Schools like Tuskegee and Hampton Institute also offered home economics classes, which included gardening training for women, and an agricultural curriculum for men. Most significantly, African American women teachers taught other women to cultivate aesthetically pleasing gardens. Some applied their training to teach at secondary schools. In 1937, the African American Elizabeth City State Normal Summer School in North Carolina offered a class in housing titled, “The Rural Community Background and Rural School Organization and Management,” which emphasized home and yard aesthetics in the curriculum, and suggested “ways and means of making rural life more attractive and joyous to those who live in the open country.” Students sketched “attractive lawns and backyards and [gave] suggestions of what native shrubbery to use and when to transplant it” in this class. They created images of nature in their art and searched the woods for plants to dig up, carry home, and replant.27

Progressive influences continued at Hampton which offered to African American women courses with aesthetics in mind, ranging from “Flower Arrangement” to “Landscape Design” in the “Curriculum for the Division of Agriculture.” These courses nurtured creativity through symmetry and beauty. Hampton also offered “Flower Arrangement” and “Flower Growing for Amateurs”-classes focusing on aesthetics and scientific housekeeping already practiced in the community and Home Demonstration. In the flower arranging class, teachers taught “the fascinating art of flower arrangement [that] provides a medium of expression universal in appeal. Students in all divisions of the Institute will find value in learning to utilize plant materials in home, store, school, or office decoration.” Instructors demonstrated “the necessary methods involved in knowing and growing ornamental plants commonly used about the home can well be learned with study and practice” in “Flower Growing.” As teachers, Home Demonstration agents, or homemakers, women applied scientific housekeeping to gardening.28

Hampton also offered classes in advanced gardening. Teachers there taught “Ornamental Horticulture,” a course general enough in scope for the layperson and the horticulturist. Students, both men and women, learned to arrange and enhance “the homes and grounds and larger properties in order to make them more useful as well as attractive” while “growing and caring for trees, shrubs, and flowers as a commercial enterprise or as a hobby.” One of the courses, “Landscape Design of Small Properties,” was more advanced than basic flower planting and arranging, and taught vegetable gardening with an emphasis on aesthetics: “Landscaping one’s own home or school grounds is an economy and a pleasure as well as an art. Teachers, community workers, and home owners alike will find it much to their advantage to be able to improve their surroundings in their respective communities.” In the “Landscape Gardening” class, students learned “the practical methods of beautifying grounds around the buildings, the construction of wind breaks, placing ornamental flower beds, laying out walks, planting trees and shrubs, arranging and planting window boxes.” Once again, African Americans had the opportunity to layer Progressive horticultural education upon community experiences.29


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. In the early twentieth century, they effectively blended gardening techniques that had come down from slavery and freedom with those taught by Home Demonstration agents and at African American schools. To enhance their skills through Progressive scientific housekeeping, 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 schools like Hampton Institute complemented community and Cooperative Extension experiences, and offered Progressive-era educational opportunities ranging from flower arranging to garden landscaping. African American wives, mothers, agents, community volunteers, and students created gardens that were both new and old, with practices that integrated tradition with Progressive practice.

Alice Walker reminisces about her mother, who planted a flower garden in the 1930s and 1940s, just after this Progressive period: “I remember people coming to my mother’s yard to be given cuttings from flowers; I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden. A garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia-perfect strangers and imperfect strangers-and ask to stand or walk among my mother’s art. I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible-except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.”30

Other stories are waiting in the hands, arms, shoulders, and backs of these rural African American women like Walker’s mother. More remains to be written about African American women in gardening, and indeed, about the history of rural African American interactions with the environment. How did African traditions in gardening cross the Atlantic into the yards of slaves and then sharecroppers? Did African American and Euro-American women differ in their gardening traditions and techniques? Did wealthier African American women tend more ornamental flower gardens and poorer women plant more food and vegetable gardens? Was there any evidence of “lifting as we climb” in gardening work, so pivotal in the African American women’s club movement? Were southern gardening traditions transformed when African Americans migrated to cities like Los Angeles and Detroit? How did African Americans create their communal and personal urban and suburban gardens? Do any of those practices continue today, and in what context do things grow for African Americans who engage in gardening-this most fundamental interactions with nature?


I would like to thank Carolyn Merchant who urged me to submit this article to Environmental History. I also appreciate Mart Stewart, Adam Rome, and the anonymous readers of the journal for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

1. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1967; reprint, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1983), 243.

2. For Progressives in the South, see Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951; reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971). For Progressive education, see Lawrence Arthur Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (New York: Knopf, 1961); and David B. Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1982). For southern education, see James L. Leloudis, Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). For African American education, see James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Henry Allen Bullock, A History of Negro Education in the South from 1619 to the Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967); V. P. Franklin and James D. Anderson, New Perspectives on Black Educational History (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978); and Meyer Weinberg, A Chance to Learn: A History of Race and Education in the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). For African American women in the Progressive period, see Floris Cash, “Womanhood of Protest: The Club Movement Among Black Women, 1892-1922,” (Ph.D., diss. State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1986); Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Sex and Race in America (New York: William Morrow, 1984); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Maude T. Jenkins, “The History of the Black Women’s Club Movement in America” (Ed.D. Thesis, Columbia University, 1984); Ruby M. Kendrick, “‘They Also Serve’: The National Association of Colored Women, Inc.” The Negro History Bulletin XVII (March 1954), 171-75; Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race, 1895-1925 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989); and Jacqueline Rouse, Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).

3. Thomas Monroe Campbell, The Movable School Goes to the Negro Farmer (Tuskegee, Ala.: Tuskegee Institute Press, 1936), 86.

4. For southern environmental history, see Albert E. Cowdrey, This Land, This South: An Environmental History, rev. ed. (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1996); Mart A. Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996); and Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985). Cowdrey establishes southern environmental history in This Land, This South, a sweeping survey from 475 million years ago to the 39905. He correctly points to the importance of the lucrative row crop system as vital to an understanding of the environmental history of rural African Americans who labored in the fields. Cowdrey invites environmental historians to draw on his broad interpretation to develop case studies of particular places and peoples in the South. Stewart’s regional “What Nature Suffers to Groe”identifies the importance of different traditions of environmental relations among blacks and whites, and how these evolved into or were expressed by fundamentally different landscapes, even when they looked almost the same and were in the same place. These traditions had a history of both continuity and change in the nineteenth-century South, and historians, Stewart argues, must look closely at the practices of everyday life to identify their significant contours. He also emphasizes the relationship between labor and landscape, as the title of his book suggests. Daniel looks at the three crop monocultures and how African Americans functioned within them as these monocultures changed and resisted or lurched toward modernization after Emancipation.

5. For African American women in gardening, see Marie Campbell, Folks Do Get Born (1946; reprint, New York: Garland Publishers, 1984); Zora Neale Hurston, “The Gilded Six Bits,” in The Norton Anthology: African American Literature, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (1933, reprint, New York: W. W. Norton &Co.,1997);1011-19 Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. For African Americans in gardening, see Grey Gundaker, “African-American History, Cosmology, and the Moral Universe of Edward Houston’s Yard,” Journal of Garden History 14 (1994): 179-205; Grey Gundaker, ed. Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998); Tom Hatley, “Tending Our Gardens,” Southern Changes 6, no. 5 (July/August 1984): 18-24; Elise Eugenia Lemaistre, “In Search of a Garden: African Americans and the Land in Piedmont Georgia,” (A.B. Thesis, Masters of Landscape Architecture, Princeton University, 1981); John Michael Vlach, The Back of the BigHouse: The Architecture of Plantation SIa very (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Richard Westmacott, African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Richard Westmacott, “Pattern and Practice in Traditional African American Gardens in Rural Georgia,” Landscape Journal 10 (Fall 1991), 86-104; and Richard Westmacott, “Yards and Gardens of Rural African Americans as Vernacular Art,” Southern Quarterly 32 (Summer 1994): 45-63. For southern gardening, see James C. Bonner, “Houses and Landscape Design in the Antebellum South,” Landscape21(1977): 2-8; and Merle Prunty, Jr. “The Renaissance of the Southern Plantation,” Geographical Review, 45 (October 1955): 459-91. For women in gardening, see Benay Blend, “I am … the Very Heart of Wildness’: Caroline Dormon, Naturist and Preservation Activist,” Southern Quarterly 35 (Fall 1996): 69-74; Jennifer Bennett, Lilies of the Hearth: The Relationship Between Women and Plants (Camden East, Ontario: Camden House Publishers, 1991); Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “The Dialectics of Wage Work: Japanese-American Women and Domestic Work, 1905-1940,” Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. History Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1990); Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, “Seasons, seeds, and Souls: Mexican Women Gardening in the American Mesilla, 1900-1940,” in Women of the Mexican Countryside, 1850-1990: Creating Spaces, Shaping Transitions ed., Heather Fowler-Salamini and Mary Kay Vaughan (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984); Deborah Nevins, “The Triumph of Flora: Women and the American Landscape, 1890-1935,” Magazine Antiques 127, no. 4 (1985): 904-22; Vera Norwood, Made From This Earth: American Women and Nature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Beverly Seaton, “Gardening Books for the Commuter’s Wife, 1900-1937,” Landscape 28, no. 2 (1985): 41-47; Jean Troy-Smith, Called to Healing: Reflections on the Power of Earth’s Stories on Women’s Lives (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996); and Marilyn Ziebarth, “On Gardening,” Minnesota History 53 (Summer 1992): 70-79.

6. For the gender roles of African American women, see Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, From Slavery to Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 3; Betty Wood, Women’s Work, Men’s Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Low Country Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 41-42; and Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t l a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1999), 22,155.

7. Norwood, Made from This Earth, 136; Westmacott, African-American Gardens and Yards, 108.

8. Lemaistre, “In Search of a Garden,” 37-55; Westmacott, African-American Gardens and Yards, 33-112.

9. Lemaistre, “In Search of a Garden,” 37-55; Westmacott, African-American Gardens and Yards, 33-112; Hatley, “Tending Our Gardens,” 19.

10. Jones, Labor of Love, 36; Lewis W. Jones, “The South’s Negro Farm Agent,” Journal of Negro Hisrory XXII (Winter 1953), 43; Vlach, Back of the Big House, 166.

11. Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow; Jones, Labor of Love, 88; Westmacott, “Yards and Gardens,” 55; and Westmacott, African American Gardens and Yards.

12. Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington, D.C: Island Press, 1993), 24.

13. As early as 1906 and prior to the Smith-Lever Act, African Americans had limited access to Cooperative Demonstration Work. See Roy V. Scott, The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970), 232; and Wayne D. Rasmussen, ed., “Smith Lever Act, 1914,” Agriculture in the United States: A Documentary History, vol.1 (New York: Random House, 1975), 1384. For the Cooperative Extension Service, see Paul D. Warner and James A. Christendon, The Cooperative Extension Service: A National Assessment (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984); L. R. Simons, Early Development of Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics in the United States (New York: New York State College of Agriculture, 1963); and John Alexander McMahon, Cooperative Extension Work in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: Institute of Government, University of North Carolina, February 1955). For the Negro Cooperative Extension Service, see Campbell, The Movable School; Earl W. Crosby, “Building the Country Home: The Black County Agent System, 1906-1940,” (Ph.D. diss., Miami University, 1977); J. A. Evans, Extension Work Among Negroes: Conducted by Negro Agents, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department Circular 355 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1923); Carmen V. Harris, “Blacks in Agricultural Extension in South Carolina,” (M. A. Thesis, Clemson University, 1990); Jones, “The South’s Negro Farm Agent,” 241-52; W. B. Mercier, Extension Work Among Negroes, 1920 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1921); “The Smith-Lever Act: Progress of Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics During the First Year,” The Negro Farmer, 9 Octobee 1915.

14. Jones, Labor of Love, 38-39.

15. Campbell The Movable School 86; Evans, Extension Work Among Negroes, 5,15-16.

16. Evans, Extension Work Among Negroes, 16; Mercier, Extension Work Among Negroes, 16 and 15. Jean S. McKimmon, North Carolina Home Demonstration Work Annual Report, Private Collection, Jane S. McKimmon Papers, 1910-1945,1928, PC 234.3, North Carolina State Archives (hereafter NCSA).

17. Gundaker”African-American History,” 192, 197, 199; Hatley, “Tending Our Gardens,” 18-19.

18. Hurston, “The Gilded Six Bits,” 1011; Vlach, Back of the Big House, 14; Gundaker, “African-American History, Cosmology, and the Moral Universe of Edward Houston’s Yard” 179; McKimmon, NCSA.

19. Westmacott, “Yards and Gardens,” 54; McKimmon, NCSA; Westmacott, “Yards and Gardens,” 55.

20. McKimmon, NCSA; Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, 86; Westmacott, African-American Gardens and Yards, 83.

21. Westmacott, “Yards and Gardens,” 54 and 55; McKimmon, NCSA.

22. Lemaistre, “In Search of a Garden,” 43; Lemke-Santangelo, Abiding Courage, 139-40; Westmacott, “Yards and Gardens,” 54.

23. McKimmon, NCSA.

24. Ibid.

25. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Raymond B. Fosdick, Adventures in Giving: The Story of the General Education Board, A Foundation Established by John D. Rockefeller (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 2-3; W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; reprint, New York: Signet Classic, 1982), 99.

26. Foner, Reconstruction, 97; Evans, Extension Work Among Negroes, 22-23; and Mercier, Extension Work Among Negroes, 19.

27. “Rural Education Courses in the Elizabeth City State Normal Summer School, 1936,” NC 236.4, Summer Schools Reports, General Education Board (GEB), Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).

28. “Division of Agriculture,” Hampton Institute Pamphlets, VA 38, Hampton Institute, GEB, RAC and “Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, Agricultural Department, Part I, Organization and Courses of Study” and Hampton Institute Pamphlets, VA 38, Hampton Institute, GEB, RAC.

29. “Division of Agriculture” and “Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, Agricultural Department, Part I, Organization and Courses of Study” and Hampton Institute Pamphlets, VA 38, Hampton Institute, GEB, RAC.

30. Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, 241.

Dianne D. Glave is an assistant professor in the African American Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University, and an African American and environmental historian. She is co-editing a collection of essays with Mark Stoll titled ‘To Love the Wind and the Rain’: Essays in African American Environmental History, which is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Copyright Environmental History Jul 2003

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