In 2011 Mrs. N.Y. Nathiri, Director of Multidisciplinary Programs (Preserve the Eatonville Community/P.E.C.), asked me to create a program that would illuminate at least one broad legacy of Eatonville, Florida, the oldest incorporated African American town in America. The program was to be presented at the 2012 Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (ZORA! Festival). I had visited Eatonville many, many times over the course of more than twenty years. Bit by bit I began to understand that the town’s garden legacy can be authentically traced directly to Dr. Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, and a small rare group of local African American horticulturists. Documentation of the simple physical existence of an historic African American community is exceptionally difficult, at best. Documentation of the origins of the gardening philosophies, practices and techniques of an historic African American community is nothing short of miraculous. But this fact serves to expand interpretation of African American gardens beyond the simple stereotype of “folk garden” or “folk landscape.”
Instruction of gardening philosophies and techniques were formally taught in classes (vocational) led by Mr. Russell C. Calhoun, the first principal of Eatonville’s Robert Hungerford Industrial School, and in practical home demonstrations with residents in the community. These lessons have been passed from one generation to the next since the turn of the century. For example, sugar cane has been grown on the town proper for more than 110 years. Truck gardening and horticulture stabilized the town’s economy. Citrus fruit and pineapple was grown for commercial sale around Orange County from the early 1900’s through World War II. Gardening transformed the town’s physical and cultural landscape, and set national standards for environmental sustainability. The annual Negro Farmer’s Conference was held in Eatonville at the Hungerford School in 1911.
Based on these findings, and my landscape architectural experience, I proposed and presented the “Eatonville Yards & Gardens Tour” at the 2012 ZORA Festival. I organized the tour around nine of Eatonville’s more accomplished gardeners. Most of the gardens are integrated into residential yards. Sometimes the distinction is so subtle that yard and garden blend without notice. Though most are considered “vernacular” in style, each has a theme or characteristics that forms a prosaic composition. In other words, these are not traditionally styled gardens that mimic the French parterre, English picturesque landscape or American modern minimalist compositions. They are authentic American landscapes that express creativity, culture and environmental awareness.
Mrs. Nathiri has asked me to lead the “Yards & Gardens Tour” at the 25th Festival in January of 2014. I will be joined by a remarkable cultural historian, Dr. Lydia C. Charles, Ph.D. Dr. Lydia will expand on the national relationships between gardening, education, civil rights and socio-cultural issues. The preliminary agenda calls for one tour group, but since this will be the Festival’s “silver anniversary” I think it might be appropriate to organize space for an additional group. If anyone is interested in participating in an expanded tour group I ask that you e-mail Mrs. Nathiri, mention my name, and request that she add this to the schedule:
“N Y Nathiri”<email@example.com>
Watch for updates on the FESTIVAL website: http://zorafestival.org/#