Revisiting our collective past with a stroll through community gardens

(part 2 of 2)

Sometimes, community gardens have the power to embody our collective memories of the past. While they can enable us to build new relationships and create opportunities to sustain a more food-secure future, they also tell us something about the struggles, strengths, and legacy of generations ago.

     11th Street Bridge in DC. Tedeytan via VisualHunt /  CC BY-SA

     11th Street Bridge in DC. Tedeytan via VisualHunt /  CC BY-SA

I explored some of these issues in an interview with Pastor Willie Wilson of Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church on June 24th, the occasion of the 2017 opening of the church’s community garden to the public. The community garden at UTBC is a partnership between the University of the District of Columbia and the 11th St Bridge Project. Besides serving as a gathering point for the local community, it also provides a means to promote some of the ethics embodied by the church, most prominently spiritual development, fellowship, communication, and the uplift of marginalized African-American communities in the metro Washington, D.C. area.

Our interview quickly took on the overtones of a series of stories of past injustices, struggles of the present, and an unvarnished, if bleak view of at the future should the status quo remain in place, told through the lens and the experience of a man who has lived, worked, preached, and fought for this community for over 31 years as the lead pastor of UTBC.

The story of marginalized African-American communities and their gardens is ultimately a story of resilience in the face of despair, of efforts to address the negative health outcomes that disproportionately face so many members the community today, and of the struggle to educate others about the policies of the past as well as ongoing policies enacted by local and federal governments, policies that have worked to systematically deprive and abuse the marginalized poor. But it’s also the story of newly freed slaves who made something out of nothing and worked hard to become what some called the “greatest generation” of the African-American middle class.

Here’s what I have gathered and distilled from those stories: 5 things we can learn about our collective past from gardens and the communities that grew them:

(1) They demonstrate why land ownership has been so important in creating wealth in this country. Today's community gardens represent a teardrop in a sea of historic land acts that worked to create wealth for some and deprive others of equal participation in the distribution of land over more than 150 years of this country’s history. As Pastor Wilson noted, “in 1860 through the Homestead Act…white people in this country were given free land, whereas we were let go from slavery with nothing but the rags on our back. The statistical data is that 53 million whites who have wealth today…that came from that free land that was given to them way back in 1860. Then you look at education. For 100 years or so, blacks were not permitted to go to the land grant colleges that were founded, except for the few HBCUs that were opened during that period of the 19th century. Then you look a 1934, the National Housing Act, when the government made low down payment loans available for everybody BUT blacks in America. So you look at these conditions compounding in terms of the toxic inequality that exists in this nation that has yet to be addressed.”

        Photo credit: ♡✌ Kᵉⁿ Lᵃⁿᵉ ✌♡ via /  CC BY-NC

        Photo credit: ♡✌ Kᵉⁿ Lᵃⁿᵉ ✌♡ via /  CC BY-NC

In other words, land was, and in many ways remains, the key to upward mobility in this country. Without land ownership (i.e home ownership), families truggled to make ends meet, afford a decent education, and enter or remain within the middle class. According to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB ), African-Americans account for 41.6% of  homeowners nationwide today, a rate that is lower than it was during the Great Depression.

The same is true for places with large, marginalized poor white communities like Appalachia: community-owned land represents a mere shadow of the collective aggregate wealth that is needed to uplift people that have been marginalized for generations. There, as in poor black communities in urban settings, the wealth of the land has been concentrated in the hands of the affluent few for generations, with most people forced to depend on others for their survival.

(2) They show us how far some communities came, and how far others have fallen. Not far from UTBC is Barry Farm, created in 1867 by the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (aka the Freedman’s Bureau), a post-slavery collective of former slaves and free people. The Freedman’s Bureau acquired 375 acres of land from white landowners David and Julia Barry to house and educate black people. What Pastor Wilson pointed out was a little known piece of that history: after building their homes, freed slaves donated the money that was left over to the project to build and develop Howard University. That history is not spoken of much these days, especially in light of the current plans to demolish the Farm, evict its current low-income African-American residents and convert it into a mixed-income community.

(3) They present an opportunity to address the statistical data that disproportionately affects marginalized African-American communities in terms of health and nutrition. I asked Pastor Wilson about some of the tangible benefits to the community that he’d seen in the years that UTBC had been doing the community garden. He noted multiple benefits: first, he said, “it’s an opportunity to speak to the statistical data that disproportionately affects the African-American community. We are at the bottom of the list of every imaginable statistic you could mention with regard to our health…here in the District of Columbia, it’s small demographically, but black men are number 1 in the nation in prostate cancer and in prostate cancer deaths. So not only do we have this garden, but we encourage every member to grow something on their back porch, on their ledge, just grow some food that you can eat. And people in an area like this, Anacostia, have not had access to good, fresh vegetables and fruits, so it's important from that standpoint, as well as to do something about their health.”

(4) They point us in the direction of what needs to be done to rebuild marginalized communities. I asked Pastor Wilson if he had heard about some of the efforts underway to revitalize blighted communities in Detroit, which suffered doubly with the slow decline of manufacturing jobs, beginning in the 1950s, and in 2013 entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Many of Detroit’s communities suffered severe market losses when the housing bubble burst and economic recession took hold beginning in 2007. However, some residents stayed and decided to create community gardens to beautify blighted neighborhoods, and the trend has expanded, bringing hopeful returnees ready to start farming businesses. To date, there are over 1400 community gardens in Detroit, with a growing number of them being integrated into housing developments.

Yet, as Pastor Wilson pointed out, you can’t really transform a community with a garden. It may give people healthy food options or help stem the tide of bad health, but it will not change the condition of a people who have been systematically deprived and abused. For that you need housing, and the kind of infrastructure that is necessary to build a wholesome and strong community. While community gardens in marginalized or poor areas may seem promising, these efforts can easily be undermined by short-sighted policies designed to benefit those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom.

This truism has already played out in Detroit: emboldened by the recovery of the housing market and seeing opportunities for future profit, out-of-state developers have engaged in land speculation, preventing some would-be urban farmers from buying land in their own communities and in some cases bringing on urban blight as they sit on properties that remain undeveloped, while some city-owned lots remain just out of the reach of local farming collectives.

Photo credit: Black History Album via /  CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: Black History Album via /  CC BY-NC-ND

(5) They demonstrate the power of partnerships, and how much they are needed. Pastor Wilson discussed this issue in light of my question about what communities can do to change the conditions of poverty, lack of access to land and opportunities in this country. He noted, “Dr. John Henry Clark, the great African-American historian, said that the generation coming out of slavery was the greatest middle class we ever had because they looked back and reached back to their fellow brothers and sisters who did not have, and helped them to get up and do something with their lives. We don't have that anywhere near the way we had that with the 2-3 generations coming out of slavery. When Barry Farm was built, they mixed that community purposefully so that freed slaves and newly free slaves built that community together from scratch. They took wood that had been discarded from the war and built that community. They had the skills: they were the carpenters, they were the brickmasons, they were the construction experts because in slavery, those were the jobs they were trained to do. So far as the vocational arts are concerned today, we once controlled those arts, all the way up to 1923.”  

“So many of our so-called middle class brothers and sisters, instead of being in the community where our oppressed brothers and sisters are, very often the case now is they take flight when they get a chance. In generations previous you had them in the community providing role models…you don't have many that are doing that [today], you have a few that are doing that. This needs to be multiplied many times over.”

Ultimately, when viewed in light of the economic and health challenges of the present, community gardens call attention to the strength of the human spirit against seemingly unsurmountable odds, but also to all the work that still needs to be done.



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The Library of Congress via Visual hunt

The Library of Congress via Visual hunt