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Abra Lee Documents Black Gardeners’ Contributions to Gardening History

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Abra Lee of Conquer the Soil will be honored at the LongHouse Reserve Landscape Luncheon on Saturday, September 9.

Abra Lee of Conquer the Soil will be honored at the LongHouse Reserve Landscape Luncheon on Saturday, September 9.

Brendan J. O’Reilly on Aug 31, 2023

Though she was years into her career already, horticulturist Abra Lee was feeling insecure in her position as the landscape manager of Atlanta Airport, as though she didn’t belong.

She said, during a recent interview, that she was young and suffering from impostor syndrome, going to work every day with a big responsibility and asking herself if she should even be doing the work.

“It wasn’t because I felt like an impostor because I’m a woman or because I’m Black,” she recalled. “I’m in Atlanta after all — Black affirmation is rampant here. What it was, is that I was so young, and I was dealing with people old enough to be my parents and grandparents in these airline meetings. And I’m there to speak on landscape and horticulture — and everyone’s just staring at you, and so you’re feeling like a fake.”

To reassure her, her mother, a retired history teacher, pointed out that Lee was not the first Black person to work at the airport in that capacity.

“She started taking me on this journey of people that came before me that were very accomplished in horticulture,” Lee said of her mother, the late Vivian Lee. Through articles found at libraries and historical societies, her mother introduced her to the lineage she had followed.

Abra Lee’s research and scholarship on Black Americans’ contributions to gardening history began in 2010 and led her to found Conquer the Soil, her ongoing exploration of the history, folklore and art of horticulture.

LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton will honor Lee for her work on Saturday, September 9, during the LongHouse Landscape Luncheon, where Lee will give a lecture titled “The Invincible Garden Ladies,” about three women in gardening history who were also the subject of an essay she contributed to The New York Times in 2021 for a package titled “Black Gardeners Find Refuge in the Soil.”

Lee said each woman inspired her and influenced her career. They were Bessie Weaver, the first Black florist west of the Mississippi; Annie Mae Vann Reid, who owned a 5-acre nursery and greenhouse in South Carolina; and Blanche Hurston, who owned a successful flower farm in Jacksonville, Florida.

Lee’s research continues, and she is working on a book on the subject for Timber Press, expected in early 2026.

As she has lectured around the country and her initiative has been publicized, she’s heard from acquaintances and great-grandchildren of the historical figures she has written about, some of whom can tell her things that she said she never would have found on the internet.

“There have been people who have reached out to me that are the descendants of these people that said, ‘I had no idea that this was what my grandmama did, and this is amazing,’” Lee said. “And I have had a warm relationship with many of these families. … I’m able to share with them things that they didn’t know about their own relatives. That brings me so much joy, and it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable, honestly.”

When Lee started her research, she did not set out to become a storyteller.

“I was just learning these things to keep my confidence up and to destroy that impostor syndrome that lived within me at the time,” she said.

She added that she didn’t know others would care as passionately about garden history as she does.

During that same time, Lee was often invited to speak to groups about airport landscaping. At the end of her talks, she tacked on stories about the historical gardening figures she had learned about, and following her lectures she was asked many more questions about those gardeners than she was asked about Atlanta Airport’s landscape palette.

“I thought, oh, there’s a larger interest here,” she said. “And so I just kept going down this road, and I’ve been doing it for 13 years now.”

Lee found that many of the people she was learning about separately had, in fact, known each other in life. She was also inspired and encouraged by the strong sense of community that had existed.

Women helped each other succeed and did not see each other as competition, she observed. They taught each other how to start a floral design course, how to grow plants and how to build their own financial independence. They believed “that everybody can succeed, and there’s enough for everyone,” she said.

She was also surprised by the length of some of their careers, as many as 50 years working in horticulture of some form, be it growing, design or garden writing.

“They weren’t necessarily working until their 80s because they had to,” Lee said. “It was because they wanted to, and I think that’s what nature can do to you. It can just keep you alive for a long time.”

She said people see these stories as great American horticulture stories. “I certainly don’t look at the work I do as Black garden history,” she said. “I certainly look at that as I tell love stories for living. … To dedicate your life to the world of gardening and horticulture and the art and science of it, you have to love it to do that. And so that is what I choose intentionally to focus on — is the uplift, the empowerment, the love that they have for their job, not the bump in the road that they hit.”

She wasn’t too far removed from college when she started this project, she pointed out. “I was researching them as people I was aspiring to be,” she said. “Twenty-three years into my career, though, these are ancestors — these are people I will never meet; they’re long gone — I’m their peer now …

“I understand their life in a way, not just because I’m Black and they’re Black. I understand it from a lived professional experience, and I know what it takes to succeed in this field and to reinvent yourself.”

She worked at Atlanta Airport from 2007 to 2012, followed by two years doing the same work for Houston airports. In 2020, she was a Longwood Fellow, part of a 13-month program by the renowned Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, designed for leaders in the public horticulture space.

Timber Press contracted with Lee for her upcoming book, titled “Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers,” a few years ago, but it has been on the back burner. Her mother was diagnosed with dementia and cancer, and she became her mother’s full-time caregiver for three years, until her mother entered hospice care and, in July, died.

She credits her mother with teaching her how to research historic documents and setting her on her path.

“I wouldn’t know these stories without her,” Lee said. “I wouldn’t be talking to you if it weren’t for her, to be honest.”

In January, Lee assumed her latest post, director of horticulture for the Historic Oakland Foundation’s Oakland Cemetery, founded in 1850.

“The cemetery world is not the same as the airport world, is not the same as the public garden world with Longwood,” Lee reflected. “It’s not the same as the parks world when I was an arborist with the City of Atlanta Parks Department.”

The Oakland Cemetery is not just a burial ground, but also a public park open 365 days per year, she noted, and she looks at horticulture now through the lens of grief and the celebration of life, and conscious of the fact the visitorship runs the gamut from the affluent to the homeless.

“It’s an old Victorian garden cemetery. It’s the only thing in Atlanta, really, that didn’t get burned during the Civil War,” she said. “As new and shiny as Atlanta looks, Oakland looks like you step back into time.”

The LongHouse Reserve Landscape Luncheon honoring Abra Lee is Saturday, September 9, with a lecture at St. Luke’s Church’s Hoie Hall at 18 James Lane in East Hampton, at 10 a.m., followed by the luncheon at LongHouse at 133 Hands Creek Road, East Hampton, at 12:30 p.m. Tickets are $275, available at longhouse.org.

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