ENSLAVED Africans did not win their freedom in order to starve. Kathe Hambrick- Jackson knew that much from her work as the founder and executive director of the River Road African American Museum here in this town, 60-odd miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans.
But Hambrick-Jackson, 54, likes to recall what happened when she asked a group of second graders, “If you were going to free yourself and leave this plantation tonight, what would you bring with you to eat?” “One of them said, ‘a bag of potato chips,”’ Hambrick-Jackson said. “And I said: ‘No, this was the year 1810. They weren’t invented yet.’ Then they started to say hamburgers and hot dogs. I said no, no, no.” The answer ultimately took the form of 10 raised beds in a community plot that she calls the Freedom Garden. Here, the museum raises plants that would have been familiar to slaves from both Africa and the New World.
On a recent afternoon, Hambrick- Jackson was hanging cards describing the garden’s specimens, with the help of two children.
Hambrick-Jackson’s brother, who runs a mortuary across the river, told her she was “junking up the garden” with these signs. What kind of kid wants to read about African botany? But Hambrick- Jackson figures “there are 50 kids in a one-block radius” who use the garden as a shortcut. Hang the labels at eye level and they’ll learn by accident.
“Where’s my nail crew?” she asked, standing next to a muscadine grapevine sprawled over a wooden fence. Like blackberries, she said, these fruits would have been easy forage for freedom seekers in the backwoods.
Other plants in the garden, like cowpeas, okra and rice, were indigenous to the Senegambia region of West Africa.
Farmers would have raised them in fields near Atlantic ports like Goree, in order to larder slave ships. Leftover food became seed stock for enslaved Africans to grow on the plantation.
In a sense, the Freedom Garden may sound like thousands of other African- American gardens across the country.
These foods have been staples in many black kitchens for centuries. But an heirloom seed can be a complicated legacy when it comes from a person who sowed it in slavery.
Put another way, it’s easy enough to find white colonial re-enactors, in bonnets and breeches, picking a tidy row of carrots.
But it’s a loaded act for the black culinary historian and heirloom gardener Michael W Twitty to don a period costume, as he will this weekend as part of a Juneteenth demonstration at Natchez National Historical Park, in Mississippi.
In a similar spirit of historical restoration, Twitty, 35, compiled the African American Heritage Collection of heirloom seeds for the D Landreth Seed Co.
Among the 30-odd plants are the longhandled dipper gourd, the white cushaw and the West India burr gherkin. What historical gardeners like Twitty and Hambrick-Jackson hope to demonstrate is how these plants were instrumental in African-American survival and independence.
“All these heirlooms have their own story,” Twitty said, and that history is often specific to a region and a culture. Take the fish pepper, a Heritage Collection seed from the Chesapeake Bay region, where Twitty lives.
Though this pepper probably started in West Africa, it may have arrived in the United States with an influx of British West Indians and Haitians into the Chesapeake between 1790 and 1820, he said.
“Coming into the part of the country with the largest free black population,” Twitty said, “they do what every immigrant does: They carve a niche for themselves.
And that niche happens to be gardening and horticulture. For a couple of decades, the West Indians and Haitians basically run the fresh produce markets in the Chesapeake.” It’s heartening to trace a single plant, the fish pepper, to a tradition of “African- American entrepreneurialism,” Twitty said. But, he added, “I don’t believe in making up stories to make things sound good.” The broader truth is that gardening is a lost tradition in many African-American communities. The National Gardening Association doesn’t tally the number of black gardeners – nor, it would seem, does anyone else. The government survey that tracks farming demographics, the Census of Agriculture, offers mostly discouraging data about black farmers. In the last survey, African-American operators controlled only 33,000 of the nation’s 2.25 million farms – less than 1.5 percent.
In 1940, the number of African- American farm operators was close to 700,000. One of those farms belonged to Lee Earl Kimble and Sallie Harris-Kimble.
The previous year, the couple paid $3,950 for 74 acres in Colfax, Louisiana.
Scratching together that kind of money, a decade into the Depression, must have been a heroic feat. Business may have been bad for the Urania Lumber Co, the seller listed on the deed.
But the land would have been better known to locals as a tiny remnant of the 14,000-acre Calhoun plantations, a leviathan of sugar and cotton fields down the Red River from Shreveport. A few generations earlier, many of the black families in Colfax had laboured there in slavery.
The Kimble farm, then, was a freedom garden writ large. And it is a kind of Juneteenth horticultural saga – of slavery and Emancipation on the same land – that is still being written, most recently by their granddaughter Diana Kimble.
When Kimble moved back to the family farm a couple of years ago, she discovered two problems. There wasn’t a lot of farming going on, and there wasn’t a lot of family to do it.
This was not always the case, said Kimble’s older sister Malva. Their grandmother had done her part, bearing 13 children.
“Two died as infants,” Malva said.
“Mary and Martha,” Diana said.
Diana, 61, and Malva, 63, lived with their parents in town (what there was of it) and visited the farm on weekends. “She pictures it like it was when we grew up,” Malva said.
“Grandmother did the gardening,” Diana said.
“And we ate out of the garden,” Malva said.
“Dada” – their grandfather – “took care of the larger crops: watermelon, corn.” “We ate the corn,” Malva said.
“She had everything: tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, squash,” Diana said.
“Beets,” Malva said.
“Purple hull peas.” “Chowder peas.” Their sons were “field hands,” Malva said. “That’s why they’re not here now.
A lot of people our parents’ age worked so hard and they got so little out of it, they won’t come back to the farm.
That’s what they tell me, and I ask!” Like countless African-American families across the South, the Kimbles gardened because they had to. How else could you feed all those children? And they gardened because they could: The land was finally theirs to plant as they pleased.
By 1920, African-Americans had acquired more than 16 million acres of land, said Owusu Bandele, a professor emeritus of sustainable agriculture at Southern University in Baton Rouge.
“That was a hell of an achievement given the challenges in the Jim Crow era.” With his wife, Bandele, 69, turned his own spread into a 4-acre demonstration sustainable farm, becoming the first certified organic African- American farmer in Louisiana. It’s more of a kitchen garden now, but still a showpiece, with tidy drip irrigation lines, succession planting and flowers shading out the tireless weeds.
“My brother said that once I started farming, my children went from coast to coast to get away from here,” Bandele said.
Indeed, for the children and grandchildren of those early black farmers, freedom meant the ability to leave the farm, and the South, for modern lives in cities like San Diego, Baltimore and Chicago. Diana Kimble made a career at Texas Instruments for 27 years. Malva Kimble worked as an office clerk in Las Vegas.
The garden today is a quilt of watermelon patches, pecan trees and hayfields. It’s also a hatchery for mosquitoes and chiggers.
Copperheads and rattlers lurk in the tall grass, and moccasins loiter in the swamps and bayous. When rain finally comes, it falls in biblical downpours, washing away plants and hardening the clay earth into cement.
Gardening here is not easy.
“They associate this kind of work with slavery,” Diana Kimble said of her four adult children, and then laughed. “And they say, ‘I’m not a slave.”’ A little zealotry has its place in a job as vast as rebuilding the family farm. A friend recently told Kimble, “Diana, people in town don’t think you’re crazy – they know you’re crazy.” Yet only a lunatic would try to get anything done in the swelter of a Louisiana afternoon on the brink of summer.
The sisters often spend the middle of the day in the cluttered kitchen of the farmhouse. It’s an old parish house that the sisters bought for $1 from the local Catholic church and carted to the farm.
The idea is that once the structure gets power and hot water, it might become a conference centre and training site for black sustainable growers.
The tumbledown building already serves as the locus for an annual work weekend in mid-April. Kimble has met many of these comrades through her role as the national co-chair of N’COBRA, a 25-year-old movement to secure reparations for African-Americans in the wake of slavery.
On Sunday, after a day of planting squash and beans, the participants gather at the Grant Parish Courthouse, in downtown Colfax. This was the site of a ruthless 1873 massacre that killed some 80 African-Americans. The Supreme Court case that followed, US v Cruikshank, effectively ended federal protection – and thus, black suffrage – in the Reconstruction South.
The vigil is where Kimble met Avery Hamilton, 47, a minister with a passion for local history. After a season of boiling tensions, Hamilton said, “my third greatgrandfather was the first black shot in the massacre.” A mounted white posse rode up to Jesse McKinney’s yard, where he was building a fence, and shot him in the head.
Kimble’s vegetable garden, Hamilton explained, was once part of the Firenze sugar plantation, one of the four joined holdings that belonged to Meredith Calhoun. In 1836, Calhoun and his fatherin- law mustered a caravan of perhaps 1,000 slaves near Huntsville, Alabama, and marched them west.
“If you look at the 1860 census and look at the slave schedule, you will find 709 listed as slaves,” Hamilton said of Calhoun’s Landing. “That would have made it the fourth-largest plantation in America. It might have been the largest at some point.” Rumour held that Calhoun was a model for Simon Legree, the slaveholder in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In 1853, The New-York Daily Times (now The New York Times) sent Frederick Law Olmsted on a ship up the Red River to the Firenze plantation. There, he described seeing an overseer whip a young woman found in a gully, shirking work. The spectacle sent Olmsted fleeing on his horse.
More than a century later, the Kimbles recall, a police officer horsewhipped their cousin on a gravel road alongside the farm. He and their uncle, who were both teenagers, had rumbled with a few white neighbours while crossing a nearby bridge.
After that, their mother cloistered them from white Colfax. “She didn’t let us go across town,” Malva said.
“Across the tracks,” Diana said.
“There was still segregation” at the beginning of high school, Diana continued.
“But in 1967, they gave us a choice.
We could go to the predominantly white school. I was curious. I wanted to know what made white people feel they were better.” The experience was oddly anticlimactic.
“What I found out was there was nothing different about them,” Kimble said.
“There were smart people, dumb people, crazy people. Just like any people. They were just Colfax people.” The black school, for its part, let out at noon in the fall, recalled Kimble’s friend and neighbour, Mitchell Scott. That put the children in the fields for the cotton harvest.
Some of the teachers were good, he said.
They helped Scott, 72, get to Southern University. He went on to become a computer programmer and accountant in Chicago. Up north, he assembled a collection of rental properties, and later cashed out most of it to buy 70 acres back in Colfax.
He calls his 10-acre homestead Safari.
Here, he has planted two acres with watermelon, okra, cabbage and cushaw.
Scott’s century plant, a kind of agave, recently sent up a 35-foot spike.
The garden grows in its own time. “I don’t get a lot of help out here,” he said.
“You have to move at a certain pace.” The demands were not negotiable at Glencoe Plantation, where Scott grew up as a sharecropper. The jobs you did for hire might yield a tiny profit. You worked on your own crop in order to survive.
“Imagine standing and looking at a 40- acre place that you have to hoe,” he said. “I don’t mean no 20 people. I mean four or five people.” The cotton-picking itself required both stamina and speed. “A hundred pounds, that was normal,” Scott said. “Old ladies who just walked, they could pick 200, 300 pounds.” As for Scott and his siblings, he added: “We never learned. We didn’t want to learn.” The sun, having conquered the day, was taking a victory lap over the horizon.
Diana Kimble perambulated the fenced garden with a hose. After an afternoon siesta, she said, “I like being out here until it’s dark.” Malva was in town, looking after their mother. She’s allowed to cross the tracks now, and she does. She volunteers as an election commissioner, which has introduced her to plenty of white neighbours.
“She doesn’t have any strangers,” Diana said.
“I like to invite myself into people’s houses,” Malva said. “See what we couldn’t see as kids.” Perhaps Malva will feel inspired to water the garden next week, when Diana goes to Philadelphia for the annual slavery reparations conference. Along the way, she’ll also stop in Baltimore to ask her uncle to sign legal papers that would give her power of attorney to manage the land.
The farm, she explained, is heir property: it belongs to 19 relatives, across the nation. And almost nothing can get done without their written consent. This is a common dilemma on African-American farms, explained Bandele, who started his career with the Emergency Land Fund, a black farm and property preservation group.
One cousin neglects to pay his share of the property tax; in protest, another cousin refuses to pay. Ultimately, Bandele said, the property ends up in a forfeiture auction. Another black farm is lost.