Gardens in the Black City: Landscaping 20th-Century African America

In July, 1937 Louise Terry was married in the garden at her parents’ Indianapolis home, and her mother Mary Ellen and father Curtis were likely proud of their daughter and garden alike.  In the days leading up to the nuptials the Indianapolis Recorder rhapsodized about the Terrys’ garden: “A beautiful rock garden and lily pond bordered with flowers of variegated hues against a background of Sabin Junipers, Oriental Golden Arbor-Vitae, Colorado Blue Spruce, Virginia Glanca, Blue Junipers, Japanese Cedars, and stately Poplars will create a celestial atmosphere … at the Terry residence, 1101 Stadium Drive.”

Dorothea Lange's 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper's cabin indicated "Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes" (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

Dorothea Lange’s 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper’s cabin indicated “Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes” (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

The Terrys’ garden lay in the heart of the city’s near-Westside, part of an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood that was routinely caricatured as a “blighted” or “slum” landscape.  In the summer of 1937 that Louise Terry was wed, construction was nearing completion on the city’s first major urban renewal project, Lockefield Garden, just blocks from the Terry home (the segregated African American community accepted its first tenants in February 1938).  There was indeed genuine impoverishment and material hardship in much of the near-Westside, yet the African-American city was dotted with ornamental gardens like the Terrys’ home.  The archaeological scholarship on African-American landscapes includes fascinating analyses of plantation spaces and food gardens, but there is far less scholarship on the scores of ornamental African-American gardens in 20th-century cities and suburbs. Compounding the dilemma in cities like Indianapolis is the reality that many of these gardens have been erased.  Nevertheless, ignoring them allows racist stereotypes of longstanding urban ruin to pass unchallenged, and it risks ignoring that many similar gardens and gardeners remain scattered across the contemporary city.

Among the most prominent voices of the African-American garden movement in Indianapolis was the Delphinium Garden Club, which formed in March, 1938.  The club included 14 women as its charter members, and it held flower shows, garden lectures, and social events for 35 years.  A 1963 history of the club indicated it remained committed to its “original inspiration … to develop genuine appreciation for the healing power of nature’s bounty and beauty in a perplexed world.”

Similar African-American gardening groups could be found throughout the country: for instance, the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia formed in 1932 with seven chapters, and it had 65 chapters a decade later.  Most clubs’ mission was to share practical advice, but in 1942 Hampton Institute’s William M. Cooper and Asa C. Sims optimistically reported that one of the Virginia clubs’ central values “has been that of improving race relations.  Wherever a club has been established among the Negro women, the white women of the community have promptly offered their assistance in all phases of the work, from the sharing of the seeds and plants up to getting city and county officials to improve the streets and roads.”

Most of the postwar pictures of Indianapolis' African-American focused on the aesthetics of "blight." This 1960 image was titled (Flanner House Homes).

Most of the postwar pictures of Indianapolis’ African-American neighborhoods focused on the aesthetics of “blight.” This 1960 image was part of the community development programs directed by the Flanner House social service agency and titled “Less than a fair start” (Flanner House Homes).

African-American ornamental gardens were part of a rich African diasporan environmental and gardening heritage, but most archaeological research has focused on subsistence food gardens.  Ornamental gardens cultivated primarily by women have been part of African-American landscapes since captivity.  Both Dianne Glave’s and Richard Westmacott’s studies of African-American gardens argue that in captivity gardening traditions were transmitted orally, rather than through gardening literature.  Glave argues that after slavery African American gardeners often favored arrangements that mimicked nature, which tended to reduce pests and weed growth.  African Americans routinely exchanged or gifted plant cuttings and seeds, and she suggests that particular plants were associated with the giver.  Sandra Lea Tydd’s ethnography of contemporary African-American gardeners echoes Glave’s argument that many of these ornamental gardens were not geometrically symmetrical; African Americans rarely acquired groups of shrubs and plants at one time.

Many African American gardening traditions extended beyond captivity and in some cases on the same landscapes as they transformed to sharecropping.  In 1938, for instance, a Federal Writers Project interview in North Carolina described a former captive’s “little weather-stained cottage.  Encircling her house are lilacs, althea, and flowering trees that soften the bleak outlines of unpainted out-buildings.  A varied collection of old-fashioned plants and flowers crowd the neatly swept dooryard.”

In October 1937 the Indianapolis Recorder included this ad for Dora Atkins' newly remodeled flower shop.

In October 1937 the Indianapolis Recorder included this ad for Dora Atkins’ newly remodeled flower shop.

The Delphinium Garden Club inherited a Progressive tradition aspiring to direct social, material, and aesthetic reform in their communities.  They saw their mission to be fundamentally educational, aspiring to “beautify yards and gardens in many parts of the city, especially among school children by donating seeds and plants.”  The club’s educational focus was not surprising, because many of the club’s members were Crispus Attucks High School faculty or teachers in the Indianapolis Public Schools.  The club’s first meetings were held at the Attucks library, the segregated Black high school where the Delphinium Club’s first President, Lillian Hall, was librarian.  Charter members Vivian Terry, Lillian Courtney, Beulah Hayes, Della Greer, Alethia Boyd, Bertha Brown, and Mary Dangerfield were also teachers at Attucks or city schools, and subsequent members such as Ruby Rankin were lifelong Indianapolis teachers as well.  Other charter members included Violet Reynolds, Secretary for the Madam C.J. Walker company, and Dora Atkins, who took over the family’s Atkins flower shop in 1923 and managed it until her retirement in 1977.

Many of the gardens that hosted club events and tours were quite spectacular.  In 1952, for instance, the club’s annual flower show was held at the 528 Udell Street home of Ruby and Lenyer Rankin.  The Indianapolis Recorder reported that “the spacious yard itself was enough to make a complete show—everything was in bloom—beautiful roses were climbing over the backyard stone fence, which was centered with a running fountain topped by a statuette of a maiden at a well; and the garden pool was a real picture displaying the wide variety of fish, many of them given to Mrs. Rankin by friends.”  In 1960 the newspaper reported on another event at the Rankin home and observed that “the Rankin flower garden, where an apple tree reflects in the pool, and the fountain in the high stone wall pours over a ledge into a bird bath, is one of the most beautiful in the city.”

Many of the most striking gardens included water features, especially fish ponds like that in Ruby Rankin’s garden.  In 1942, for instance, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on an event at the Fall Creek Parkway home of Lula J. Dunn at which “the artistic lighting about the Sunken Garden, Fish Pond, and old fashion Well in varigated [sic] colors was designed by L. Miller & Sons.  The flood lights about the front of the home added beauty and dignity to the occasion.”  Other distinctive gardens incorporated features like the rock garden in the Paris Avenue home of Elizabeth Douglas.  During a 1937 event “throughout the evening occasional passers-by stopped their automobiles in order to view the rock garden which covers the entire corner.  It was referred to by one of the speakers as `the show place of the community.’”

The club was especially active in the 1950’s, when some of its members moved to newly constructed suburbs.  In 1947, for example, the club had its annual “Lilac Breakfast” event at “the country estate of Mr. and Mrs. HENRY L. GREER,” the first of many African-American families to settle in homes on Grandview Drive (capitalization in original).  The Indianapolis Recorder’s “Social Scene” columnist Richard C. Henderson made one of the few acknowledgements of the club’s class exclusivity when he noted that “I might hope here that the club would sponsor a garden tour for the general public. . . . Its members have very beautiful gardens which the general public would probably pay a reasonable fee to view.”  In 1953 the club met at the suburban home of their new President Violet Reynolds, who with her husband David moved into a home a few doors away from the Greers in 1952.  Stephen and Mary Auter moved into the neighborhood in about 1953, and in 1966 the club’s 38th anniversary was marked in the “`yard park’ of two members, Mrs. Stephen Auter and Mrs. David Reynolds on West 64th Street.”

African-American garden clubs were the province of women, but certainly many men were gardeners.  In May, 1958 the Delphinium Club held its “Strawberry Breakfast” at the “country home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry L. Greer. . . . Trust Mr. Greer to be sufficiently proud of his vegetable garden—with justification!—to entice the men out to cast envious glances about.”  A year later when Elsey Sarver retired the newspaper reported that “his hobby is his attractively kept yard, and many of his spare hours will be spent in his rose garden or his rock garden or his fish pond.”  When Curtis Terry died in 1971, his obituary indicated that he “was widely known among the reputable nurseries where he purchased many variegated trees and flowers and transplanted them in his yard.”  A 2003 memorial article on Curtis and Mary Ellen Terry suggested there was a gendered division of labor in the Terry garden, noting that while he “worked with the trees, shrubbery, and lawn to make the garden beautiful, Mrs. Terry worked on planting and cultivating the flowers!  The flowers were many, variegated, and beautiful!” (underlines in original).

Frank and Lula White's 29th Street garden once had a "velvety lawn spilling into the alley," but today only traces of the Whites' garden remain (2014 Google map image)

Frank and Lula White’s 29th Street garden once had a “velvety lawn spilling into the alley,” but today only traces of the Whites’ garden remain (2014 Google map image)

At the 1950’s height of Indianapolis’ African-American garden club movement, the Delphinium Club was simply one of the city’s gardening clubs.  The Green Thumb Club, Golden Gate Garden club, and Happy Gardener’s Club had missions comparable to the Delphinium Garden Club.  The Green Thumb Club was founded in 1947 and continued to have events into the 1990’s.  However, most of the garden clubs appear to have disbanded in the 1960’s.  In 1971 the Delphinium Club had one of its last garden tours when it visited two “small, jewel-like gardens.”  The 29th Street home of Frank and Lula White had a “beautifully designed annual and perennial garden that is in bloom from early spring until late Fall.  The garden is bordered by rocks that encircle a velvety lawn spilling into the alley . . . . They say they received their inspiration years ago when invited on a garden tour by the Delphinium House and Garden Club.”  The club then visited Lida Smith’s Highland Street “private garden enclosed by lovely shade trees, flowering shrubbery, edged with blooming plants, a green carpet of grass, a small pool, garden statuary and a bird bath that is constantly visited by birds.”  The Delphinium Garden Club’s last event in the Indianapolis Recorder came in September, 1972 when they held a garden party on the “green, velvety, manicured lawn” of Mary and Stephen Auter.

The city's first major urban renewal removal known as "Project A" razed Curtis and Mary Ellen terry's home and garden at 1101 Stadium Drive.

The city’s first major urban renewal removal known as “Project A” razed Curtis and Mary Ellen terry’s home and garden at 1101 Stadium Drive.

The primary reason we know little of this urban garden story is that the city allowed these urban neighborhoods to decline and then spearheaded urban renewal projects including mass demolitions and the construction of the interstate.  For instance, Curtis and Mary Ellen Terry’s palatial home and garden sat on Fall Creek, and by 1941 Curtis Terry filed suit against the city because “refuse dumped into the creek will cause the stream to overflow its channel and flood his property. . . . Noxious odors in the neighborhood are often caused by a sanitary sewer … located near City Hospital.”   The Terry’s home became part of a tract targeted for demolition by the city’s Redevelopment Commission, even though it could not have fit the description of “blighted,” and the Terrys moved in about 1952 when their home became part of 178 acres razed during “Project A.”

A 2011 Google Map image of 528 Udell Street, the former home of Ruby and Lenyer Rankin.  The stone wall they built still stands, but most of their garden is now gone.

A 2011 Google Map image of 528 Udell Street, the former home of Ruby and Lenyer Rankin. The stone wall they built still stands, and a pond has been filled in the yard, but most of the Rankin’s garden is now gone.

Many of these postwar gardens are now gone.  For instance, Elizabeth Douglas’ Paris Street home and its spectacular rock garden was razed during the construction of Interstate 65 in 1967.  The interstate sliced through predominately African-American neighborhoods that included many of the former homes of postwar gardeners, including the Udell Street home of Ruby Rankin.  The Rankin home where the Delphinium Club met in the 1950s and early 1960s still stands, and the stone wall of their garden still sits near the traces of a filled yard pond, but most of the garden’s features have been erased.  Frank and Lula White’s 29th Street house likewise stands today, but the yard is today absent all the features the club celebrated in 1971.

Many more Indianapolis yards contain the remnants of such garden features, but in many neighborhoods small backyards have become the spot for garages erasing many of the yards’ historic features.  Preservationists defend these historic structures, but the consequence of many of these postwar ornamental gardens often passes without comment; likewise, most archaeologists examining 20th century African America have devoted little or no attention to ornamental gardens or their centrality on the 20th century African-American landscape.  Yet throughout Indianapolis and many similar cities, hardy flower beds and greenery cling to their foothold and many people quietly continue gardening traditions that reach well into the 19th century if not earlier.



Federal Writer’s Project

1941 Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 1936-1938 Volume XI North Carolina Narratives.  Work Projects Administration, Washington DC.


Dianne D. Glave

2003 “A Garden So Brilliant with Colors, So Original in Its Design”: Rural African American Women, Gardening, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of an African American Environmental Perspective.  Environmental History 8(3):395-411. (subscription access)

2006 Rural African American Women, Gardening, and Progressive Reform in the South.  In To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History, edited by Dianne D. Glave and Mark Stoll, pp. 37-50.  University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.

2010  Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage.  Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago.


Grey Gundaker, editor

1998 Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground.  University of Virginia, Charlottesville.


Barbara J. Heath and Amber Bennett

2000 “The little Spots allow’d them”: The Archaeological Study of African-American YardsHistorical Archaeology 34(2):38-55.


Brian James McCammack

2012 Recovering Green in Bronzeville: An Environmental and Cultural History of the African American Great Migration to Chicago, 1915—1940.  PhD Dissertation, Harvard University.


W.B. Mercier

1920 Extension Work among Negroes, 1920.  United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.


The New York Age

1943 Negro Garden Club Book Hot Off the Press. The New York Age 18 September:12.


Sandra Lea Tydd

2003 Seeking an Understanding of Urban African-American Relationships with Nature.  Master’s Thesis, Morgan State University.


Lillian Camilla Weems

1956 A Study of the Negro Home Demonstration Program in Georgia, 1923-1955.  Master of Arts Thesis, Atlanta University.


Richard Westmacott

1992 African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South.  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

1993 The Gardens of African-Americans in the Rural South.  In The Vernacular Garden, edited by John Dixon Hunt and Joachim Wolschke- Buhlman, pp.77-106.  Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.


H. Hamilton Williams

1943 Handbook of the Negro Garden Club of Virginia.  Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia.



“Less than a Fair Start” image from Flanner House Collection, IUPUI University Archives

Sharecroppers cabin, Dorothea Lange July 1939 image from Library of Congress.


Posted on July 19, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I love this! Shorter would be better. A little every day or two. We all have a lot to read but this is cool. Following

  2. Very interesting, well thought out and clearly written. I had never heard anything of these gardening clubs, or post-war gardens. This was a fascinating addition to my knowledge of American History. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Paul, your mention of the Delphinium Garden Club and its connection to educators reminds me of Anne Spencer’s garden. Spencer (1882-1975) was a poet and teacher in Lynchburg, VA, and was associated with the Harlem Renaissance. According to the “Encyclopedia of Virginia,” her garden was something of an artists’ retreat, as well as a consuming passion: Her house is now a museum and the gardens are being restored:

    • That is really fascinating. An interesting range of creative people, working-class families, scholars, and upwardly mobile middle-class folks tended gardens in the African-American world.

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