Planting Your Path: Abra Lee and Black America’s Legacy in Ornamental Horticulture

Gardening, IDEA, Video

Abra Lee is a public horticulturist, historian, writer, and author of the forthcoming book, “Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers.” Her research focuses on Black garden history, and she raises awareness of Black gardeners and farmers, helping to put them into their rightful places in the overall history of American gardening and horticulture through social media, articles, and speaking engagements.

Abra has made an art form out of storytelling and connection, weaving the considerable threads of her plant-based knowledge with the truths, legacies, and histories from Black growers who came before her. Some of her recent work includes, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Lasting Legacy of Black Women and Garden Clubs in Virginia,” which appeared in the spring ’22 edition of Garden Citings, a publication of Cherokee Garden Library at the Atlanta History Center. In the 2021 issue of Wildflower Magazine, a publication of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Botanic Garden of Texas, her article, “The Influencers: giving credit and remembrance to the Black women who shaped American gardens,” appeared. She’s appeared twice in Fine Gardening, once in an article celebrating the horticultural achievements of Charles Edgar Dickinson, Jr., the first Black member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and again in a profile about Margaret James Murray Washington, “an educator who brought the idea of horticulture as a viable occupation to Black women in the United States.” She’s written for The New York Times and appeared on Short Wave, a podcast from NPR.

Abra was the speaker for our 11th annual Ina and Lew Heafitz Endowed Lecture in 2021, and we’re thrilled she’s agreed to let us share her lecture for Black History Month.* Watch her talk, “Planting Your Path,” about her journey to uncover Black America’s legacy in ornamental horticulture. “These are everyday Americans who loved plants so much they made them their life’s work,” she explained to us. “They succeeded against every odd during the Jim Crow era and didn’t just survive—they thrived. Many were also legacy children of agriculture and horticulture—their parents and families had plant businesses. Most important, these folks knew they needed each other to succeed and very much had a ‘lift as you climb’ attitude versus one based only in self-interest.”

*Please note, this video will only be available during the month of February, 2023.

Ms. Phoebe, Magnolia Plantation (photo supplied Abra Lee, also pictured above).

Abra, a self-described “storyteller by choice and a horticulturist by chance,” is a compelling, entertaining, and inspiring speaker. About her talk, she said, “These are some exceptional plant people with exceptional life stories. This isn’t just Black garden history—it’s American history. My intention is that people feel uplifted and inspired when this conversation is over. If they leave feeling that way, then I have done my job.”

Please note that this video was only available through February of 2023.