Abra Lee Talks Black Women in Gardening

Abra Lee, a speaker, writer and founder of Conquer the Soil, will summon her experience for a presentation May 18 sponsored by Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardeners. 

The free talk – The Culture of Gardening with Abra Lee: The Work is in Our Hands – takes place at noon via Zoom webinar. Registration is required and can be completed on the presentation’s webpage. Lee plans to discuss how Black woman have, through determination, enthusiasm and willpower, overcome ugliness in America to cultivate beauty in the landscape. She will talk about how their self-expression and activism through gardening led to a lasting legacy of community pride throughout generations. 

Lee spent time in the dirt as a municipal arborist, Extension agent, airport landscape manager, and more. She is a graduate of Auburn University College of Agriculture and an alumna of the Longwood Gardens Society of Fellows, a global network of public horticulture professionals. 

“We all have stories or histories connected to plants and gardening, sometimes good, sometimes bad,” said LeAnn Locher, OSU Extension Master Gardener outreach coordinator. “But not all of those stories are told, written about or taught. Abra Lee is a beautiful storyteller, and we are so excited to amplify her history telling of Black women in ornamental horticulture. These are stories we need to hear and hold space for, especially in gardening.”  

Lee describes her organization, Conquer the Soil, as a community that combines history, art, fashion and culture to raise awareness of ornamental horticulture, which she writes about in the following questions and answers. 

Q: How did your background lead you down your current path? 

A: It was never my intention to major in horticulture in college. I was like any other young person trying to figure it all out after high school. I did see college as the next step and when I enrolled in Auburn University, I was clueless as to what I wanted to major in. A few years into school and after many times at changing my major it was a random occurrence and also an epiphany that I should take the route of horticulture. I was on the campus bus called the ‘Tiger Transit’ and out the window saw some students under a beautiful yellow tree, a sugar maple, taking notes and just kinda casually hanging out enjoying the sunshine with their professor. I could not believe they were getting a grade for this. I asked around and learned these were the horticulture students. And that was that – all I could think was “count me in!” 

Q: In your bio, you say you combine history, art, fashion and culture to raise awareness of ornamental horticulture. Tell me a bit more about that. How do those things come together in ornamental horticulture? Why ornamental and not edible? Everyone seems passionate about edible gardening right now. 

A: On the weekends when I was a child, my family would go down to Barnesville, Georgia, where my Mama is from and my family had a farm. It was rural and there was country dirt road. When you came off that dirt road and made a right onto the property to head down the long driveway – for me the excitement would just build. Then all of a sudden through the trees you could start seeing the flowers in the yard and the pots on the porch. I still get excited thinking about it as I knew we were about to hop outta that car and experience full on joy – every time! For these reasons, ornamental horticulture has always been about fantasy and escapism. In Barnesville, seeing the flowers bloom throughout the season, smelling the eastern red cedar, picking up the pecans off the ground, watching the leaves change every fall – it was honestly, truly art and luxury and beautification. That is what ornamental horticulture is to me. When I step outside around plants, I am hyper aware and feel like I am stepping into a real-life movie. There is drama, suspense, action, thrill, agony – all of those things. That is what ornamental horticulture is to me and that is why I love it so. It is truly an art form filled with storytelling. 

A: Of course, I love food (my family to this day still calls me by my childhood nickname Munchie because I love food so!) I saw the real cultural shift and new renaissance into edible gardening over 10 years ago when Mrs. (Michelle) Obama launched the largest and most expansive vegetable garden to date at the White House. I support growing your own food as I come from a family of farmers. That being said my family literally fought for freedom and believed I should be free to choose. They were always supportive of me going my own way and prioritizing beautification and garden history over agriculture. And indeed, my work is branched off from agriculture. I think that is the beauty of this field; there are so many lanes and you get to find the one that you are most passionate about. Even cooler, there are multiple opportunities to switch it up and continually re-invent yourself. 

Q: In the title, what does “The Work is in Our Hands, refer to?

A: These are the words of the great Lillian Hughes Savage, president of what was then called the Negro Garden Club of Virginia. It is from the address that she delivered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the club. She was referencing that even though the country was at war (World War II) and simultaneously at the height of the Jim Crow Era in America, the women in the club must continue on with their efforts of beautification and balance the ugliness of war and horrors of racism with the beauty of gardening.

Q: Can you give me an example of a Black woman who will be featured in your presentation? Why did you choose her? 

A: The Honorable Lillian Harris Ransom will be featured in my presentation. I chose her as she is a living legacy of the Black women that did such significant and unacknowledged work in those historic garden clubs back in the day. 

Q: How does DEI factor into horticulture? 

A: DEI is a choice. You can’t force it on folks. Either they want to be inclusive, or they don’t. I do think you can educate people. For me it is common sense. From the first leadership position I was hired for (landscape manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport) through today I have always centered DEI in my work. Way back then I didn’t do it because it was “DEI.” I’m not sure I even was aware of the term back then. I did it because it was the natural and right thing to do. 

Q: What role do you see for women of color in horticulture? 

A: I see women of color in any role in horticulture they want to be in. I have worked in floriculture, greenhouses, plant nurseries, estate gardening, commercial landscape management, interior plantscape, as a municipal arborist, as a landscape manager at airports in two states, as an Extension agent. I am a Longwood Gardens Fellow, and a speaker and writer. I was never the only woman of color at any of these companies. We have always been here – hidden in plain sight – doing our job the best we know how. We will always be here.