DONALDSONVILLE, La. — Enslaved Africans did not win their freedom in order to starve. Kathe Hambrick-Jackson knew that much from her work as the founder and executive director of the River Road African American Museum here in this town, 60-odd miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans.
But Hambrick-Jackson, 54, likes to recall what happened when she asked a group of second graders, “If you were going to free yourself and leave this plantation tonight, what would you bring with you to eat?”
“One of them said, 'a bag of potato chips,'” Hambrick-Jackson said. “And I said: 'No, this was the year 1810. They weren't invented yet.' Then they started to say hamburgers and hot dogs. I said no, no, no.”
The answer ultimately took the form of 10 raised beds in a community plot that she calls the Freedom Garden. Here, the museum raises plants that would have been familiar to slaves from both Africa and the New World.
On a recent afternoon, Hambrick-Jackson was hanging cards describing the garden's specimens, with the help of two children.
Hambrick-Jackson's brother, who runs a mortuary across the river, told her she was “junking up the garden” with these signs. What kind of kid wants to read about African botany? But Hambrick-Jackson figures “there are 50 kids in a one-block radius” who use the garden as a shortcut. Hang the labels at eye level and they'll learn by accident.
“Where's my nail crew?” she asked, standing next to a muscadine grapevine sprawled over a wooden fence. Like blackberries, she said, these fruits would have been easy forage for freedom seekers in the backwoods.
Other plants in the garden, like cowpeas, okra and rice, were indigenous to West Africa. Farmers would have raised them in fields near Atlantic ports like Goree, in order to larder slave ships. Leftover food became seed stock for enslaved Africans to grow on the plantation.
A lost tradition?
In a sense, the Freedom Garden may sound like thousands of other African-American gardens across the country. These foods have been staples in many black kitchens for centuries. But an heirloom seed can be a complicated legacy when it comes from a person who sowed it in slavery.
Put another way, it's easy enough to find white colonial re-enactors, in bonnets and breeches, picking a tidy row of carrots. But it's a loaded act for the black culinary historian and heirloom gardener Michael Twitty to don a period costume, as he does for occasions such as the Juneteenth demonstration at Natchez National Historical Park, in Mississippi. In a similar spirit of historical restoration, Twitty, 35, compiled the African American Heritage Collection of heirloom seeds for the D. Landreth Seed Co.
Among the 30-odd plants are the long-handled dipper gourd, the white cushaw and the West India burr gherkin. What historical gardeners like Twitty and Hambrick-Jackson hope to demonstrate is how these plants were instrumental in African-American survival and independence.
“All these heirlooms have their own story,” Twitty said, and that history is often specific to a region and a culture. Take the fish pepper, a Heritage Collection seed from the Chesapeake Bay region, where Twitty lives.
Though this pepper probably started in West Africa, it may have arrived in the United States with an influx of British West Indians and Haitians into the Chesapeake between 1790 and 1820, he said.
“Coming into the part of the country with the largest free black population,” Twitty said, “they do what every immigrant does: They carve a niche for themselves. And that niche happens to be gardening and horticulture. For a couple of decades, the West Indians and Haitians basically run the fresh produce markets in the Chesapeake.”
It's heartening to trace a single plant, the fish pepper, to a tradition of “African-American entrepreneurialism,” Twitty said. But, he added, “I don't believe in making up stories to make things sound good.”
The broader truth is that gardening is a lost tradition in many African-American communities. The National Gardening Association doesn't tally the number of black gardeners — nor, it would seem, does anyone else. The government survey that tracks farming demographics, the Census of Agriculture, offers mostly discouraging data about black farmers. In the last survey, African-American operators controlled only 33,000 of the nation's 2.25 million farms — less than 1.5 percent.
The Kimble farm
In 1940, the number of African-American farm operators was close to 700,000. One of those farms belonged to Lee Earl Kimble and Sallie Harris-Kimble. The previous year, the couple paid $3,950 for 74 acres in Colfax, La.
Scratching together that kind of money, a decade into the Depression, must have been a heroic feat. Business may have been bad for the Urania Lumber Co., the seller listed on the deed.
But the land would have been better known to locals as a tiny remnant of the 14,000-acre Calhoun plantations, a leviathan of sugar and cotton fields down the Red River from Shreveport. A few generations earlier, many of the black families in Colfax had labored there in slavery.
The Kimble farm, then, was a freedom garden writ large. And it is a kind of horticultural saga — of slavery and Emancipation on the same land — that is still being written, most recently by their granddaughter Diana Kimble.
When Kimble moved back to the family farm a couple of years ago, she discovered two problems. There wasn't a lot of farming going on, and there wasn't a lot of family to do it.
This was not always the case, said Kimble's older sister Malva. Their grandmother had done her part, bearing 13 children.
Diana, 61, and Malva, 63, lived with their parents in town (what there was of it) and visited the farm on weekends. “She pictures it like it was when we grew up,” Malva said.
“Grandmother did the gardening,” Diana said. “And we ate out of the garden,” Malva said. “Dada” — their grandfather — “took care of the larger crops: watermelon, corn.”
“She had everything: tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, squash,” Diana said. “Beets,” Malva said.
“Their sons were “field hands,” Malva said. “That's why they're not here now. A lot of people our parents' age worked so hard and they got so little out of it, they won't come back to the farm. That's what they tell me, and I ask!”
Like countless black families across the South, the Kimbles gardened because they had to. How else could you feed all those children? And they gardened because they could: The land was finally theirs to plant as they pleased.
Gardening here is not easy.
“They associate this kind of work with slavery,” Diana Kimble said of her four adult children, and then laughed. “And they say, 'I'm not a slave.'”
A little zealotry has its place in a job as vast as rebuilding the family farm. A friend recently told Kimble, “Diana, people in town don't think you're crazy — they know you're crazy.” Yet only a lunatic would try to get anything done in the swelter of a Louisiana afternoon on the brink of summer.
The sisters often spend the middle of the day in the cluttered kitchen of the farmhouse. It's an old parish house that the sisters bought for $1 from the local Catholic church and carted to the farm. The idea is that once the structure gets power and hot water, it might become a conference center and training site for black sustainable growers.
Friends have warned Kimble that long-lost relatives will reappear someday to claim the fruit of her labor. This is exactly what she hopes will happen. “There is enough land for everybody to come back and get their portion,” she said.
A shared heritage
For now, the children who visit the garden come from town. She and her sister teach a life-skills class for third, fourth and fifth graders. If nothing else, they are curious about her locked hair, which she has been growing out for almost 20 years.
This is a perfect opportunity to talk about her African heritage and theirs. This winter, Malva spent two months in Ghana. After hearing about the farm in Louisiana, a Ghanaian friend asked her to accept a small piece of land as a gift. Diana would like to see it for herself. What would grow there?
After she leaves her grandchildren the inheritance of the family farm, she imagines moving to Tanzania, maybe, or Burkina Faso. She doesn't see herself dying in Colfax.
The Kimble plot lies in a beautiful cemetery. But the family's graves are relegated to the back, behind those of the white families who share their last name. Her mother's people, meanwhile, rest outside a chapel on the Raven Camp plantation south of town, surrounded by the fields they knew as sharecroppers.
“There was enough cotton in this lifetime,” Kimble said. The next garden will be different.