Tracing A Fraught And Amazing History Of American Horticulture : Short Wave When Abra Lee became the landscape manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, she sought some advice about how to best do the job. The answer: study the history of gardening. That led to her uncovering how Black involvement in horticulture in the U.S. bursts with incredible stories and profound expertise, intertwined with a tragic past. She's now teaching these stories and working on a book, Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country's Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers. Abra Lee talks with Short Wave producer Eva Tesfaye about uncovering Black horticultural history and several hidden figures who shaped it.

We'd love to hear of any unsung horticulturists or gardeners in your life - write us at

Tracing A Fraught And Amazing History Of American Horticulture

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: SHORT WAVE is celebrating Black History Month all month and this week especially. So today, we want you to get out your gardening gloves and break open your history books because our guest is leading a movement to honor the hidden figures of Black gardening. Enjoy.


KWONG: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


S'up, SHORT WAVErs? Producer Eva Tesfaye here, and I'm so excited that it's Black History Month, and I'm even more excited to share with you what I learned about one of my favorite scientific fields - horticulture.

ABRA LEE: The best way I can describe the field of horticulture is it's a real range like the field of cooking. So my background is ornamental horticulture. That's what my degree is in. So if you think of beautification, making things pretty, the decorative part of plants, that is my lane that I drive in. But there's farming, there's botany, landscape architecture, which is a whole other discipline.

TESFAYE: Abra Lee has been a horticulturalist for about two decades now, but she only started studying the history of it when she became the landscape manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. She was feeling nervous about it, so she asked her mentor for advice. He told her, you need to learn your garden history.

LEE: And so I thought that meant start with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the Bible and then go forward to Spain and Californian and Southern horticulture. But my mama said, no, no. What he means is that you need to know your garden history, Black garden history, who were the Black horticulturists before you?

TESFAYE: Now she is teaching and working on a book called "Conquer The Soil: Black America And The Untold Stories Of Our Country's Gardeners, Farmers And Growers." So today on the show, Abra helps us uncover Black horticultural history and teaches us about three hidden figures who shaped it. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


TESFAYE: So I want to talk about three main people for this episode, and I wanted to start about - with someone that you called an eco-poet. Tell me about Effie Lee Newsome.

LEE: Effie Lee Newsome is a woman who is a Harlem Renaissance writer and quite possibly - and I believe that she's credited as the first poet who wrote mainly for Black children in the United States. And this is also a woman who writes for many publications, including the Crisis Magazine, which was the official publication of the NAACP, and W.E.B. Du Bois is her editor for this magazine.

TESFAYE: Wow, that's a lot of Black excellence. So why is her story important to you? Like, why did you decide to write about her, share her story with the people that you give talks to?

LEE: Well, I share her story with the people I give talks to because one of the things that she is really famous for is using nature as her - I guess the term that we would use now is as her stance in social justice. So she does things in the poem - in the essay that she writes about - "Gladiola Garden" in the Crisis. She compares nature to these Black children who are growing up during the Jim Crow era and...


LEE: ...Seeing horrible things happen around them. This is a time where Black children are not not aware that lynching is a real domestic terror crisis in the United States. But she has the foresight to use things like the mighty oak tree and compare the brown of the bark of oak to the brown skin of a child. And so she's very well aware of colorism. She's very well aware of how people are portraying dark-skinned people as these horrible characters with oversized lips and oversized noses and looking goofy. But she describes how beautiful they are and how the darkness in them is compared to that in the black-eyed Susan. So she understands how to use nature to empower and uplift instead of demean.


LEE: (Reading) In red and orange, cream and rose, the happy gladiola grows. In slim, green boots, in tall, green rows. There are so many colors here, so many tints, so much good cheer. A little girl, a little boy, in gardens of mixed shades, much joy. One really has to think of you, for you are many colors, too. In cheery dresses, suits and shoes, and those gay-colored hats you choose. With a light and gladness in your faces, you make through Earth gay garden places.

TESFAYE: Oh, I love that. It's also, like, the image of the kids in nature - like, the connotations of trees and oak trees at that time for Black people were just very negative, and this just feels like nature can be positive, and they can - the children can see themselves in the nature in a very positive way.

LEE: Right. Absolutely. And especially because I'm in ornamental horticulture, that is my jam to...

TESFAYE: (Laughter).

LEE: ...Talk about some gladiolas. So I just loved it. I love it.

TESFAYE: So the next person I talked to Abra about was William Charles Costello. He was a musician and a magician. And in the horticultural world, he was known as an entomological artist. He painted insects.

LEE: He's at a picnic one day, and an insect falls into a water bucket at this picnic. And he sees it, and he said this insect looked like a goose with its head cut off.

TESFAYE: (Laughter).

LEE: And so he starts collecting insects. He notices their symmetry. He notices their colors. And it becomes a thing of interest to him and something that inspires his art.

TESFAYE: So in the 1940s, an entomology professor at Ohio State University saw Costello's art. He recruited Costello to paint insects for his classes.

LEE: There's not enough bugs in the collection for each student in the class, and when you're passing around the bugs, they start losing these key parts - their antenna, their legs - so you're not able to identify them. And so what he does is that he takes these bugs, looks at them under a microscope, blows them up eight to 16 times bigger and draws them with pencil onto a special type of window shade. And from there, he paints them in oil. So the students are able to study these insects in their classes.

This is 1940s. World War II was popping off. Someone says, well, what's the value of your work? And he says, it's the same value as the men and women, the people who are in the Air Force, the Navy, the Army, the way that they're trained to see whether a plane is a friendly plane on their side or an enemy plane - that's the same way I teach these students with insects. They're trained to know if it's a good, beneficial insect or if it's an insect that is an enemy or a pest because one insect can destroy the whole economy of a county.

TESFAYE: Wow. OK, so the last person I want to talk about is Wormley Hughes. And he was an enslaved man, but he was the head gardener of Thomas Jefferson's garden at Monticello. Tell me about him.

LEE: For me, especially because of my background in beautification and ornamental horticulture, I look at him as the godfather because that is the type of work...


LEE: ...He did at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. And not just ornamental horticulture - this man was essentially a head gardener, which is a really big deal. To Monticello's credit, they have done a very good job of being sure to be inclusive of his story. But one of the things that I noticed was it was mentioned on their website that the flower gardens were not cared for by professional gardens but by Jefferson's daughters. And for me, an enslaved person who has this expertise in beautification and is laying out flower beds and is felling trees and is planting seeds and is helping with designs, you're absolutely a professional gardener because - I know because I worked as a professional gardener. I've worked on estates, so I'm very well aware of the type of work that he was doing. And to say an enslaved man isn't professional is - that's just not true. That's just not true.

TESFAYE: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to ask you, like - you know, there are those kind of, like, negative, painful sides of this Black horticulture history. I mean, Wormley Hughes being a slave, the lynching that you mentioned with Effie Lee Newsome - but, I mean, like, as much as it's exciting to hear about these, like, positive sides in these things, just a huge part of horticultural history is Black people being enslaved.

LEE: It is. And I certainly have made it a point to not make this book about Black trauma. I certainly didn't make the book about white guilt. It is a celebration of their many talents. And by many - I mean, I didn't even mention Charles Costello can play 14 instruments, right? It's just extraordinary what these people are able to do. And I think that it just shows me the richness that I come from as a Black woman in horticulture. And then also, it's not that this is Black garden history; this is American garden history. And so, absolutely, if we're talking about the United States of America, pioneers in horticulture are Black people.


LEE: And I think that - I hope that more people are understanding that today.

TESFAYE: Yeah. I want to talk about an important part of this story, which is folk gardens or Black vernacular gardens. Could you explain exactly what those are?

LEE: So folk gardens is a term that I use. I'm not saying that I invented the term. I'm just saying that that is a term that is easy to understand for the average person. And what I mean by that is that these are gardens where the rules are unwritten, the traditions are passed down from generation to generation. So what I mean by that is the swept yard, where you may see a lot of containers in the garden, a lot of yard art. And what we believe about the containers is that Black people had the land taken from them so many times, when their garden's in a container, they can take it with them wherever they land next. But this becomes part of a landscape aesthetic.

And to be clear, just because you're Black doesn't mean that you create folk gardens or you're into Black vernacular landscapes. It's a style no different than French garden, California style, Japanese, so I want to be clear about that. So when you see this type of landscape now, some people say that's just a big old pile of junk. But there's a lot of meaning to that. There's a lot of symbolism.

TESFAYE: Yeah. And you had one at your family's home in Barnesville, Ga. Tell me about it.

LEE: This was my aunt Lois' house. So this is the family farm that my mama was raised on. Her grandparents raised her, and it meant everything to me because this was a garden that I loved as a child. It was a type of garden...


LEE: ...And yard that Zora Neale Hurston describes Black people decorating their decorations. So I saw that. I saw that there was these yucca plants with the sticky ends that'll poke you in that yard. And my aunts and uncles would cut the little bowl part of the egg carton and stick that on the end of the yucca so it looked like it was blooming, and they would change the colors out. And Aunt Lois would - the chickens would be running around and she would sweep that yard, she would sweep those footprints out of there. And if it rained, she would lay rugs over it. And she would have the heirloom roses mixed in with tomatoes and irises popping up and daffodils in the front.

And it was also a place where my mama brought me back to reality because once I went off to Auburn, you start learning the, quote-unquote, "professional way." And so I came back to Barnesville after one of my visits and I had started learning some things, and I said, my mama said something about a bush in Aunt Lois' yard. And I said, oh, that's not a bush, it's a shrub. And you could have just, like, heard a pin drop from Aunt Lois to my mama to all these elders staring at me like, excuse me? And so my mama was like, have you not learned anything?

Like, we're spending all this money for you get this horticulture degree, and you have the audacity to come into our family farm and correct me because this white institution that we have the privilege to send you to because of our money tells you it's a shrub, but it's been a bush to you decades and decades of your life, and your great-grandfather built this farm. This is a man who couldn't read or write, who used his X mark. So it really brought me back down to reality about who the real experts are, right?

TESFAYE: Yeah. And I think it comes back to what we've been talking about, like, these people who in history, like, may not have been educated in horticulture in the traditional university way, but we can still learn a lot from them, and they are experts.

LEE: Absolutely, a hundred percent, a hundred percent. I mean, the knowledge that I learned there and what Barnesville means to me and how this folk garden lives - it doesn't exist anymore. It's overgrown; Aunt Lois is gone. But I say that because gardens are ephemeral. And this history and knowledge that was passed down to me and I witnessed through my own eyes I'm able to share. So it's just a rich and exciting history there, and it's just something that I hope more people understand and respect.


TESFAYE: Abra wanted to thank her students - Taylor (ph), Lily (ph), Dustin (ph), Sadie (ph), Emily (ph), Rob (ph), Alexander (ph), Vera (ph) and Trey (ph) and professor David Hill at Auburn University. This episode was produced by Chloee Weiner and edited by Gisele Grayson. Kathryn Sypher checked the facts. Stu Rushfield was the audio engineer. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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