“Conquer the Soil” author Talks History and Horticulture
I stood on the path watching while Abra Lee knelt and placed her right hand on a brick, fingers splayed. Her fingertips settled into shallow oval-shaped marks imprinted into the 19th century blood-red paver.
The brick maker’s name is lost to history, but the makers’ marks live in the paths throughout Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery. Oakland is special, a beloved park and public garden that’s also an active cemetery. Among its 70,000 residents are 28 former Atlanta mayors, and notable Georgians like golfer Bobby Jones and “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell.
I caught up with Abra at Oakland Cemetery on a cold early spring morning. The redbud trees and bright coral quince were at their peak, and we talked as we walked, discussing history and horticulture and honoring those that came before. Walking Oakland’s paths under heavy overcast skies, it felt like winter’s last sigh on the first breath of spring.
Conquer the Soil
Abra is at home in places like Oakland where the living walk right by the dead. She’s a horticulturist by training, and a historian by nature and profession. Her work tells the stories of Black Americans who worked the land and built opportunities for themselves and their communities. It’s a rich and complicated history that she’s uniquely qualified to tell.
“You can’t separate Southern history from horticulture,” she says. “It’s there in the stories from slavery to civil rights.”
Abra shares these stories in her forthcoming book, “Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers and Growers,” slated for release in September 2023. In it, Lee profiles 45 Black Americans whose horticultural contributions are not well known. Like the forgotten brick makers, they made their mark, but their full stories were lost, until now.
It makes sense why “Conquer the soil” is Lee’s brand for her work in horticulture and history. The quote is by W.E.B. DuBois, on Black contributions of “the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire.” (“Souls of Black Folk,” 1903).
Abra earned her horticulture degree at Auburn University, and her career includes stints as an estate gardener, a Cooperative Extension agent, and horticulturist at the Atlanta airport, before finding purpose in the history of Black American horticulture. Along the way, she listened and recorded the stories that caught her ear — the tales of important Black contributions to her chosen field, some widely known, some not.
Conquer the Soil
Through “Conquer the Soil,” Abra tells the stories of the people who weren’t seen — the horticulturists, floriculturists and gardeners who worked the soil and created something new. Some were enslaved, some were free, and many lived through the perils of segregation and Jim Crow.
The stories come to her from research in archives, libraries and funeral home records. Two-thirds of the stories originated from word-of-mouth, many shared by family and friends. “Folks tell the stories they heard growing up,” she says.
Some of the hidden figures Abra writes about are familiar from high school history class. Less familiar is the story of Wormley Hughes, the principal gardener at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia.
Hughes managed the gardens at the 5,000-acre estate. He also dug the founding father’s grave. Hughes is now considered the grandfather of Black American horticulture.
Lee’s work gives credit where credit is due. Although he was an enslaved laborer, Hughes did the work of a professional landscaper. Lee makes clear that he deserves proper recognition for his contributions to an American landmark garden.
She profiles Annie Vann Reid of South Carolina, a former teacher turned entrepreneur who owned a nursery in the 1940s that sold plants and seeds. She writes about David August Williston, a Cornell University graduate who was the first Black American landscape architect. Williston’s achievement is his design for the Tuskegee University campus.
In her talks, Abra tells of the Texas rice farmer called “Uncle Ben” whose name appeared on boxes of parboiled rice. Along with other Black Americans who conquered the soil but didn’t get history’s respect , “they were pioneers in horticulture.”
“We owe them so much more than to call them Aunt and Uncle,” she says.
Growing Up at Oakland
None of Abra’s subjects reside at Oakland (at least so far), but the historic park is dear to her heart. After all, it was her playground while she grew up in Atlanta in the 70s and 80s.
At the time, her father was the director of Parks in Mayor Maynard Jackson’s administration, and Abra rode with him on weekends to check on city parks. (Jackson succeeded Sam Massell as the first elected Black mayor of Atlanta in 1974.)
On our Oakland tour, we stopped at Mayor Jackson’s grave, an impressive 14.5-foot monolith of honed black granite from Africa. At the base of the monument, a bed of ivy symbolizes eternal life.
Throughout the cemetery, visitors leave mementos at the monuments. You’ll find stacks of small stones on the monuments, and golf fans leave tees and balls by Bobby Jones’ headstone. On the day we visited, an opened bottle of Hennessy and snifter perched on the ledge of Jackson’s monument.
Many of Oakland’s monuments face east, but Jackson’s faces west, towards the the shimmering gold dome on the Georgia capitol building. As the first Black mayor of a major Southern city, Mayor Jackson consolidated political power on the foundation that Dubois wrote about a century ago.
In a city like Atlanta, “the city too busy to hate” that is oftentimes too busy to remember, honest-to-gosh history lives just under the surface.
Like Abra says, once you know to look for the fingerprints in the bricks, you see them everywhere. The red Rockmart bricks have held down the earth for more than a century. Someday, someone will tell their stories.
My favorite professional photographer, Laura (Kay) Mercer, who just so happens to be my daughter, accompanied Abra and me on our walk through Oakland Cemetery. The images of Abra, the bricks, the greenhouse, and the mementos at Maynard Jackson’s monument are all hers. See more of her work on Instagram.
See more of my pictures from Historic Oakland Cemetery here.
Abra Lee is everywhere, and a good place to start following her is on Instagram.