Gardens All Their Own: Early African American Gardens in Detroit

February 12, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Detroit was still a burgeoning industrial center in 1918 when John and Elizabeth Crews ended a journey “through six states seeking a home” and settled in the city. As part of the Great Migration, when African Americans began moving to Detroit in large numbers for employment opportunities and an escape from Jim Crow segregation, the Crews and many others were faced with the challenge of making a place and building community in a new environment.

In Detroit, many stopped their traditional gardening and food growing practices because urban-industrial life offered new opportunities to escape toiling on the land. Others changed and adapted their horticultural practices. Although the East Side of the city where many migrants first lived was quite dense, some managed to cultivate gardens here, while others moved to areas with more space.

bh001663-c

Although photographed in 1949, this house with a small garden in Detroit’s East Side neighborhood suggests some of the ways Detroit’s African American migrants in the early 20th century made use of their yards. The image was taken by the agency charged with documenting and appraising the neighborhood before it was demolished to build Interstate 75.
Image Courtesy of Corporation Counsel – Real Estate Division records, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Used with permission.

For those with financial means, the West Side of the city offered one of the first opportunities for African Americans in the area to cultivate a suburban garden aesthetic in a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes. Yards were landscaped with lawns and adorned with flowers and trees (often fruit trees). One resident planted so many flowers along her fence that she was known as “The Flower Girl.”  Unlike other suburbs, however, rock gardens were often a common feature, especially in the more private space of the backyard. As one resident remembered, “Roosevelt was a serene and beautiful street with trees, green grass, butterflies, [and] beautiful rock gardens in back yards…”  The neighborhood was so closely knit one resident described it as “village.” Home ownership created a shared sense of community as residents worked to maintain a suburban sense of place.

Image 7_Rock Garden_West Side

This rock garden in a back yard on Roosevelt Street was created from rocks the owners collected on their travels. From “Remembering Detroit’s Old Westside: 1920-1950,” 1997.

In the Eight Mile-Wyoming area, where the Crews lived, residents often had a different vision of the suburban ideal, raising chickens and growing gardens that often included vegetables, such the “Kentucky Wonder” green beans the Crews canned to eat throughout the winter.   Corn was also a common sight in the neighborhood, along with an informal system of community gardening. As one resident told a visitor, they had no trouble with people stealing from their garden because, “we just plant a little more than we need each year to take care of that.”  Alternately, “if we run low, we just get a few [ears of corn] off of somebody else’s. We all know that. We don’t care. We’re friends out here!”

LoC Vachon Image

A house with a cornfield in the Eight Mile/Wyoming neighborhood. Photograph by John Vachon, U.S. Farm Security Administration (courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division).

Not everyone found this more rural way of life appealing, however. During the 1920s and 30s, the Detroit Urban League (an organization founded to assist African American migrants in Detroit) often sponsored flower garden contests (complete with prizes of cash or flower bouquets)  in this neighborhood to beautify what they considered to be unsightly “yards,” not gardens. According to one observer,  during the spring contest houses in the neighborhood were “surrounded by riots of bloom…porches and fences sag under the weight of rambler roses, honeysuckle, and clematis; the yards bloom with myriads of flowers.”

While images of these gardens are sparse, bits and pieces from the written record help to illuminate the ways African Americans used gardens to create a sense of place, belonging, and community in Detroit, a tradition that continues with community gardening projects in the city today.

-Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow

Image 12_Manistique Community Garden

Sunflowers at the Manistique Community Garden, on Detroit’s East Side, August 2012. Photograph by Joe Cialdella.

Entry filed under: Garden History. Tags: , , .

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