by Connie Oswald Stofko
Abra Lee, author of the forthcoming book Conquer The Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers, had just finished giving a talk in South Carolina. Elders in the audience came up to her and told her about someone from their community that Lee had never heard of–Annie Vann Reid.
Reid, a Black woman who was a teacher, grew flowers in her garden. She often gave them away for free, but people told her they were willing to pay for these beautiful blooms.
“She saw this as a business opportunity,” Lee said.
Reid opened a floral shop, which grew to multiple shops. She owned a greenhouse and a five-acre nursery.
This was during the height of segregation in the South, but Reid was able to cross racial lines and sold flowers to white people in positions of power.
“She was known in her community and in her day, but stories like this can get lost over time,” Lee said.
Lee, who is capturing these “love stories” in her book, will share stories from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 19 at the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, 136 Broadway, Buffalo. The event is hosted by The Nash House Museum and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House.
The event is free, but seating is limited. Pre-registration is required. Register here.
In a phone interview, Lee said that when she arrives here, “I’m most interested in learning about Buffalo and the historic Black community. There is so much to learn from the elders after a speaking engagement.”
Lee is known as a writer and researcher in Black horticulture. For her book, she “picked stories that I found inspiring and uplifting to me. Many of the people I write about lived in the Jim Crow era or Reconstruction, but I focus on their work. Many of them helped people in their community.”
There was Bessie Weaver, who was most famously the first Black florist west of the Mississippi. She grew her own flowers, saved money to build her business and became wildly successful, Lee said.
Rather than discouraging competition, Weaver gave talks and taught courses so others could open their own businesses. This kind of cooperation is something Lee believes in as well.
“If I help my neighbor win, I win as well,” Lee said. “We need to do this in our communities and our country as a whole. We have to work together–there’s no other way to win.”
Lee also wants to share the many ways Black people in her book worked in horticulture. William Charles Costello was an entomological artist, drawing insects. Effie Lee Newsome was a poet who, among other things, wrote a book of poems for children called Gladiola Garden.
When Lee was in college at Auburn University, she didn’t know about the many ways people can work in horticulture. She’s now director of horticulture at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta–a title and job she didn’t even know existed when she was younger.
For home gardeners, Lee encourages people to “find your purpose. It may be to grow a grand champion ‘Stargazer’ lily or grow your own food. Others will find joy in your purpose.”
And even if there comes a time when gardeners can no longer dig in the dirt, she encourages them to reinvent themselves in a new way. Pick up nature poetry or create collages that inspire you.
“Keep your love of gardening,” Lee said.