Garden with a message: Plants helped slaves achieve freedom
by DOUG OSTER
A heavy rain is falling outside the Frick Environmental Center in Squirrel Hill. It's the beginning of a winter thaw, and the From Slavery to Freedom Garden near the entrance is soaking up the water preparing for spring. In one bed, small dark green spinach leaves have survived the cold, forming a carpet of green on a raised bed.
Camila Rivera-Tinsley, director of the center and director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Samuel Black, director of African American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center, talk about the collaboration that began four years ago to create this garden with a message.
Rivera-Tinsley inherited the project when she came to the conservancy in 2016.
"The idea of the garden represents sovereignty," she says. "Sovereignty evokes this feeling of power. Someone is not giving you freedom, because you are born with your freedom. You can take that freedom. The way to do that is through the knowledge of what's growing outside."
Visitors to the garden are asked a poignant question: What would it be like to be an enslaved person and decide to leave everything and everybody you know, and how will you survive?
"The story of environmentalism, of sustainability, that we're telling here is everybody's story," Rivera-Tinsley says.
Black directs the Slavery to Freedom project at the history center, and this garden is an extension of what's there. "I wanted to have a space that was an outside exhibit," Black says.
During research for his book "The Civil War in Pennsylvania, The African American Experience," he discovered plants that runaway slaves and those who became free used to survive and thrive. The Environmental Center had the green space and programming opportunities around the garden that make it a perfect fit.
Back in 1979, when Black was freshman in college learning about the Underground Railroad, a professor talked of something called "African-American agency." In most of the written history of the Underground Railroad, there's very little mention of African-Americans trying to free themselves. There's more about white abolitionists and what they did to help people get free. That "agency" is what African-Americans relied on to leave the plantation, usually into the woods where they needed to subsist on what was growing there.
"I wanted to look deeper, to answer my own question. What were the experiences of these runaways? What motivated them? How did they survive?" Black wondered.
In the center of the garden are raised beds that reflect what would grow in a market garden. After gaining freedom, the African-Americans could use food to gain economic independence with a garden like this. They would plant okra, tomatoes, peppers and other items. At the backside of the garden are wheelchair-accessible planters where that spinach thrives. Along the edges are berries, perennials, spring ephemerals, pollinator plants and other wild plants.
"I hope that (visitors') interest will be peaked," Rivera-Tinsley says. "They will see those plants on the edge of the garden and will want to go find them out on the trail. I want everybody to know this park belongs to them."
Black focused on 50 plants, some found in the wild for sustenance or for medicinal uses, and varieties people planted in their own gardens. Those included peppers, crabapples, dandelions, a native fruit called paw paw, apples, greens, cole crops, and much more.
After researching the history of the dandelion and how it kept people alive, Black says, "Now I feel guilty spraying (to kill the plant) because I understand it's connected to my ancestors. For me, I wanted people to think differently about foods, black culture and black ingenuity."
During the gardening season, tour guides can share a taste of what's growing, as a sort of culinary history lesson.
"Here are some of the things that people ate to survive as they were running away from slavery," Black says. "You get an opportunity to sample some of the plants, so you're doing the same thing in a sense that these runaway slaves were able to do."
The garden tells a powerful historical story, and Black hopes it's an important teaching tool.
"I want people who already have some knowledge of this history to have something totally new," he says. "I want people who know absolutely nothing to learn something totally new. I want to change people's ideas about the experiences of African-Americans. When they leave, they'll have a better understanding. It's that type of impact on the public that I appreciate more than anything."
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.