African American influence on American horticulture has been hidden in plain sight. Gain a fresh perspective on influences from the past 400 years that have previously gone unnoticed this month in Mt. Cuba’s program Invisible Layers in the American Landscape. Abra Lee, owner of Conquer the Soil — a brand at the intersection of plants and pop culture, will shine a light on those who’ve paved the way for modern gardening in American throughout the program.
Find out how Lee, now the keeper of these pioneering stories, carved a spot for herself in the field of horticulture.
Mt. Cuba Center: Your experiences range from arborist to landscape manager for some very large airports — and you’ve worked your way from Atlanta to the Garden Capital of America as a Longwood Fellow. It’s quite the trajectory! What inspired you to pursue a career in horticulture in the first place?
Abra Lee: There were multiple things that inspired me to pursue a career in horticulture. It wasn’t my original intent when I enrolled in college at Auburn University. I will say my parents were incredibly supportive. I grew up with equal parts city and rural roots. Visiting our family farm on the weekends in Barnesville, Georgia growing up. And also being raised around stunning wooded landscapes in Southwest Atlanta. When I eventually landed on horticulture as a major, my parents were supportive as they understood what it encompassed. They saw the big picture that I wasn’t signing on to be just a skilled laborer (which is incredibly important to hone and learn in the field) — I was signing on to be a leader!
Mt. Cuba Center: As one of the leading authorities on African American influences in landscaping and horticulture, your work reaches people across the country. What gap do you hope to bridge for gardeners who were previously unaware of these invisible layers?
Abra Lee: What I want to make people aware of is Black people have a legacy of being exceptional cultivators of the soil. It is our culture and origin. We brought these skills from the continent of Africa, in bondage, to the Americas and passed the knowledge down through the generations. Black people weren’t enslaved because they had marbles in their brain — they were brilliant agrarians with heads just as educated as their hands. Our influence on American horticulture has always been here hidden in plain sight. Let’s bridge that there has been a gap in the truth that is as far as the eye can see. Black garden history is American history and the two are inseparable.
Mt. Cuba Center: We’re very excited to host your class during the month of February. Considering recent attention on racial issues and bias, does Black History Month have a different significance to you in 2021?
Abra Lee: I am very excited to be welcomed by the Mt. Cuba family — it is an honor! I grew up in a home that was full of Black pride from my Mama, who received many degrees at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and spent her career as an educator teaching students of color in Atlanta Public Schools; and a Daddy that was active in the Civil Rights movement and became the first Black Director of Parks for the City of Atlanta. My parents surrounded and immersed me in Black art, literature, music, love, cuisine, and excellence. I cannot say Black History month 2021 has a different significance to me then it has at any other point in my life as the beauty of being Black was a daily celebration in my household and still is. There has been a cultural shift and it has a different significance to this country which is a beautiful thing! For the first time many are fully and consciously experiencing and learning the amazing things about Black American culture that I was fortunate to have instilled in me since birth.
Mt. Cuba Center: You’re also something of pop culture expert, what are you seeing now that gives you hope for a more diverse future in horticulture?
Abra Lee: Lol to pop culture expert! I am just a Southerner to the core that is nosey and likes to keep up with some good ol’ fashioned gossip. To be clear — the harmless escapism type gossip not the cruel stuff. So, if that makes me a pop culture expert — yep, count me in! Seeing young people and people who are entering the field as a second act — watching them see there is no need to assimilate themselves to make their work in the plant world more palatable to the masses. Their hair, their looks, identity, and language. You accept them as they are or you find someone else to follow and they are 100 percent okay with that. The power in not compromising your identity and values gives me hope, people have had to shrink themselves in this industry for far too long and no more. I see people feel free and they are out here living their full horticultural lives with no shame, honey, and I love it!
Mt. Cuba Center: Finally, which African American horticulturalist (or other influencer) has been your favorite to learn about and why?
Abra Lee: My, my, that is tough to answer as it is like you asking me to pick my favorite senior relative lol! I deeply see these folks as the ancestors who paved the way and made my incredible career in horticulture possible as well of the careers of many others. I love the Black women who were flower sellers in Washington, D.C. in the post emancipation era for their roles as pioneers in flower farming. I love William Charles Costello for his stunning artistry as an entomological artist. I love the enduring legacy and work of the garden club ladies, who worked tirelessly to beautify Black communities in the South and across the United States. I happily kiss the ring of self-made Black nurserywomen, florists, and entrepreneurs like Mrs. Annie Mae Vann Reid. They are all favorites at different times for different reasons.
Join Mt. Cuba Center and Abra Lee on Saturday, February 27 from 10-11:30 AM for Invisible Layers in the American Landscape.