Seeds of Survival: Botanical Gardens Honor the Black Experience

Beans, made by his aunt and grandmother, were the only thing Kofi Acree would eat as a child. Now he makes handfuls for himself in all sorts of ways: with shrimp and tomato sauce, with cheese and eggs.

Foods like grain, made from corn, offer a connection to the enslaved plants that people of African descent used to survive and thrive, Acree says.

“The fact that I’m carrying out something that my ancestors did is really wonderful. It’s a joy,” says Acree, director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library and curator of Africana collections at Cornell University Libraries.

Kofi Acree, Director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library and Curator of the Africana Collections at Cornell University Library, talks to gardeners outside the installation at the Cornell Botanical Gardens.

Corn is among 21 plants featured in “Seeds of Survival and Celebration: Plants and the Black Experience” at Cornell Botanic Gardens’ Nevin Welcome Center. The exhibit includes an outdoor plant display, an audio tour, and an indoor exhibit, all of which describe plants that are important to the black experience in the Americas dating back to the transatlantic trade of slaves Acree served on the advisory committee that helped shape the exhibition; also curated an accompanying library guide.

“We see this transatlantic slave trade, or ‘Maafa’, the Swahili term for ‘great disaster’), as a horrible thing,” says Acree. “But what the exhibit really shows, in a sense, is how we survived.”

Food plants and commercial crops

The exhibit focuses on food plants native to West Africa, such as black-eyed peas, okra, and millet, which were used as provisions on slave ships and integrated into American cuisine. It also highlights cash crops, such as sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco, which fueled the transatlantic slave trade.

The goal of the exhibit is not only to elevate plants that are important to the Black experience, but also to provide a space of diversity and inclusion, says Sarah Fiorello, the gardens’ interpretive coordinator. “These are truly amazing stories, and enslaved Africans and their descendants are often not given credit in our country,” he says.

Seeds from the remains of slave ships’ provisions, such as watermelon and sorghum, made their way into the gardens that enslaved Africans planted around their homes. Their agricultural skill and resilience allowed them and their descendants to stay alive and retain some of their dietary preferences and cultural identities under the trauma of kidnapping and slavery, Acree says.

“What they did was incredible. They had to cultivate these gardens after work, after work, for free, by the way,” says Acree. “And that meant late at night, early in the morning, before I went to the field.”

Collards were among the various leafy greens that enslaved people grew in their own gardens, allowing them to continue the West African tradition of incorporating leafy greens into soups and stews.

From left, taro, okra and fish pepper.

Collards hold a special place in the memories of Garden Ambassador team co-leader Jakara Zellner ’23, who served on the advisory committee and narrated the audio tour.

Her mother cooked fresh cabbage from scratch for Sunday and holiday dinners. Zellner prepared the greens for her mother to cook, repeatedly washing the grain from the tough leaves before her mother boiled them, creating a salty “juice.”

“My mother also grew up near Mobile, Alabama, where her mother and grandmother farmed and we would often come home after visiting with jars full of vegetables that they grew and prepared for us.” says Zellner, who majored in sociology and minored in health equity. “Whenever I cook or eat green glue now, I’m reminded of those family memories.”

Okra, a member of the marshmallow family, has been used in African cuisine for millennia; slave cooks introduced it to American cuisine. Culinary historian Michael Twitty believes that Haitians first brought the peppers to Baltimore, Maryland in the late 1800s and soon after they appeared in the gardens, kitchens and produce markets of the area, grown almost exclusively by black farmers. Taro’s large heart-shaped leaves are cooked into a spicy side dish known as callaloo that honors the legacy of African Caribbean ancestors.

“It’s an interesting culinary journey, to start thinking more deeply about how these came to be,” says Fiorello, “and how big the contribution of enslaved Africans and their descendants was to the creation of these cuisines.”

The exhibit also includes the cash crops that slaves were forced to grow. West African rice farmers were particularly targeted for slavery because of their expertise in rice cultivation. Between the 1740s and 1770s, indigo was an important cash crop grown on southern plantations, where slaves planted, cultivated, harvested, and processed it to dye clothing worn by upper-class Europeans.

During the 1700s, the number of enslaved people in the Chesapeake Bay area and North Carolina increased from 10,000 to 1 million due to increased European demand for tobacco, which led to a greater demand for labour force.

Collaboration, contributions

Cornell Botanic Gardens began work on the exhibition in fall 2021 in collaboration with Valerie Aymer, Associate Professor of Practice, Landscape Architecture, in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), and the students enrolled in his individual study class in landscape architecture. . The eight students conducted research on significant plants, with the help of Acree library resources, and developed design concepts for the planting display. From these initial concepts, garden horticulturists Melissa Cox and Emily Detrick determined which plants could be grown; Fiorello and educator Pam Shade conducted further research into the history of the plants. The advisory committee provided input to students through fall 2021 and Gardens staff through spring 2022.

The display for the exhibit at the Nevin Welcome Center at the Cornell Botanical Gardens.

The advisory committee consisted of Acree, Aymer, Fiorello, Zellner, and Greg Page, professor emeritus of art, AAP; and Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, director of Cornell Health’s mental health promotion program.

Collaboration between students, staff and the advisory committee shaped the exhibit’s theme, which shows how historically these plants were important to survival.

The exhibit’s primary goal is to uncover the narratives about the many ways African descendants have contributed to American food and agricultural practices, Zellner says.

“I hope visitors who interact with these plants will leave the gardens recognizing and acknowledging some of the innovative agricultural creations and techniques developed by black Americans,” she says, “and how that history connects to today’s cultural cuisines and injustice within our food system”.

The garden facility is open from dawn to dusk; the exhibit at the Nevin Welcome Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

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