In 2005 when the North Lawndale Greening Committee reached out to older members of the community for help with programs tailored to neighborhood youth, there was a feeling of reluctance by some who felt they had already done their fair share of farming. Many opted for supervisory roles in the youth gardening projects.
When you consider that, these neighborhood elders were part of the great black migration from the South to northern cities that peaked in the 1950s; it is understandable that they do not have a romanticized view of gardening and agriculture. After all, they came north to be part of the industrial economy and hoped to leave behind all things associated with the painful memories of agriculture.
“African-Americans–who have been very frank with me– say that gardening is ‘what the slaves did,’ and they want no part of it,” said Barbara Melera, owner and manager of the D. Landreth Seed Company in New Freedom, Pa., the oldest seed house in America. This year the D. Landreth Seed Company is celebrating its 225th birthday and issuing a commemorative seed catalog to mark the occasion. Ms. Melera says that she’s gone back through the history of the D. Landreth Seed Company catalogs and picked out the “neatest” things in those catalogs to include in the commemorative seeds catalog, which will be the last one given away for free. It will certainly be a collector’s item because it will contain information that gardeners and garden historians will not find anywhere else.
Another reason the seed catalog for Landreth’s 225th birthday is creating a buzz is the inclusion of the African American Heritage Collection. The African American Heritage Collection marks the first time a seed company has created a seed collection that targets African American gardeners. When African Americans discover that they have a rich culinary history that predates slavery, they view vegetable gardening in a completely new light, according to conversation Ms. Melera has had. “This is one of my accomplishments I’m most proud of,” says Ms. Melera of the seed collection. The African American Heritage Collection is collaboration between Ms. Melera and Michael Twitty, a community scholar of traditional African American food culture. The heirloom seeds are (comprised of seeds already in the Landreth catalog) listed with information on culinary use and where they originated from in Africa or the Caribbean.
With the First Family, serving as an example and now the African American Heritage Collection of seeds the time is right for groups like the North Lawndale Greening Committee to reap the rewards of their hard work and usher in a new generation of gardeners.
“We do a lot, but there’s more work to be done to teach people to grow their own food…and of course about urban beekeeping,” says Dr. Israel.
Today the North Lawndale neighborhood is home to many community and backyard gardens, the Chicago Honey Co-op– an urban beekeeping cooperative–and the Betty Swan Community Arboretum, an Urban Forest Education Center where residents, students and Treekeepers learn about caring for city trees.
The D. Landreth Seed Company has sold seeds to every president from George Washington to FDR. Will President Obama be calling them anytime soon to make a purchase of this historic collection of seeds? Lets hope so.
You can contact Dr. Israel via Twitter. Watch a neat documentary on the North Lawndale Greening Committee’s garden walk by Rebecca Parish. Photo gallery of the North Lawndale Greening Committee’s garden walk 2010. Request a commemorative seed catalog from the D. Landreth Seed Company at www.LandrethSeeds.com or by calling 1.800.654.2407