8 Things I Didn’t Know:

What a Historic Garden Club in Durham Can Teach Us About Life,

History, and Addressing Climate Change

By: James Robinson, Caroline Kealoha, Rachel Radvany, and Surafel Adere

            If you visited Durham 90 years ago, you would encounter a city that bears little resemblance to what stands today. Pauli Murray had just moved to New York City in order to prepare for college.[1] Duke University was still called Trinity College.[2] And the News and Observer was owned by Joseph Daniels and James Carr, who used it to promote an agenda of White Supremacy.[3] The Durham skyline now includes shiny glass facades, and Smith Warehouse houses classrooms instead of Tobacco, one small part of Durham never did change. In living rooms, kitchens, and gardens, the Year Round Garden Club has been gathering, cooking, praying, and planting.

Current members of the Year Round Garden Club, which has been continuously operating for almost a century.

This semester, we had the pleasure of speaking to the members of the Year Round Garden Club. Joe Wilson, born in Washington D.C., is the President of the YRGC, and Paul Lyons, who grew up in Butner, is the Vice President. Jackie Jones, the treasurer, is a native Durhamite, Doretha Richardson is the secretary, and Cynthia Davis also grew up in Durham. They shared with us their history, knowledge, wisdom, and a most delicious 7 Up Pound cake, baked by Jackie. Throughout our conversations with the members, we would repeatedly hear different iterations of the question, “Do you know what an [insert object we knew nothing about] is?” These objects, ideas, and stories provide a peek into a history that was defined by injustice, social change, and, now, gentrification. It’s a history that is too often overlooked, and yet, a history through which the Year Round Garden Club persisted. We decided to highlight eight of these ideas below.[4]

 

  1. We had no idea what a ‘45 is. Even Surafel, an avid music enthusiast, had never heard of it. Jackie taught us that a ‘45 is a type of record. It earned its name from the number of rotations it makes every minute.[5] She showed us her husband’s record collection, an extensive compilation that spans the entire wall and is two shelves deep. We attributed this to the generation gap and our lack of knowledge of old music platforms. 45s were really only used until the early 2000s, before any of us were buying music. By the time we were becoming music lovers, 45s were replaced by CDs and later digital forms of music.

 

  1. We didn’t know what snow ice cream is. James is from Maine, where it is not unheard of for the first snow to fall before Halloween. But even he had never heard of snow ice cream. Joe recalls brushing snow into a bowl, adding sugars and molasses, before slurping down his natural delicacy. Snow Ice Cream is a celebratory welcoming of the white fluff that rarely falls from the sky. Although even Joe admits, that today, it is not recommended to make snow ice cream out of the first snowfall of the year because of toxins now present in the snow.

 

  1. We didn’t know how to find persimmons, Locus, or Scuppernong grapes. Most of us hadn’t even heard of these plants. However, the members of the club reflected on their vast experience with them, remembering their adventures in the woods when they would pick Locus off the bushes and lick the jelly-like insides, sharing in the sweetness. These woods are no longer as prevalent in Durham, due to construction and a developing city. The lack of these experiences could be

    Members of the Elkerson family have lived in this house since 1950. As Durham gentrifies, Ms. Barbara may be the Elkerson to be able to afford to live in this house.

    part of the reason that younger members of Durham’s community are not as interested in gardening. Many of the members found their love for gardening and joined the club because their parents were avid gardeners, so they grew up surrounded by plants. Growing up playing in the woods and having that exposure to nature leads to a certain feeling of connection, that one can continue through gardening. With the increasing development of Durham, people don’t have that connection and it is harder to appeal to the younger generation’s spirit to bring them closer to nature.

 

  1. We didn’t know what it meant to sweep the yard. This was another form of entertainment that us Northerners had never heard of. Joe remembered his mother sweeping their yard, and he recalled making patterns in the dirt with homemade brooms. Cynthia remembered very clearly, “No I didn’t. My mother did. But I did not.”[6] She made brooms for others, as did Doretha’s mother, but neither of the members partook in this pastime.

This tradition accompanied many slaves from Africa to the United States as a way to keep the outside clean from meals, snakes, weeds, and more. Lawns weren’t popular until the mid-to-late 1800s and even then, the upkeep of a lawn required wealth. By caring for the outside land by sweeping the yards, the black southerners were able to symbolize their appreciation for the outside.[7]

 

  1. We didn’t know that you could eat soil. The perfectly manicured landscape on Duke’s campus mascarades a thick layer of red clay that hides underneath. It wasn’t until the YRGC asked if we knew about the soil that it became evident that there is more to it than just dirt. Joe informed us that you can eat the clay just like you eat a piece of candy, and it’s good for digestion. Doretha also told us that after a fresh rain, when the smell of the soil is intoxicating, she sometimes tastes a sample. “It gives a scent that’s tasty,” she reflected. “You feel like the top of the earth is clean, so you might taste the dirt. Always after a rain.”[8]

Heavy clay soils typical of the Southern Piedmont.

The soil wasn’t always like this, though. As Saskia Cornes at the Duke Campus Farm taught us, the growth of tobacco and other cash crops was rough on the soil and the need for constant profit did not allow plots time to recover.[9] Slaves were forced to work the cash crop fields that comprise much of the land that is now Durham.[10] Sarah Childs, director of the Duke Forest, told us how there’s an entire layer of the soil missing due to this degradation.[11] It became evident throughout this semester that the physical scars of the land left behind in terms of soil quality are only able to heal through conscious practice of those like the year-round gardeners. Their come from a community that was forced against their will to purport this damage, and now they are the hands that are blessed to heal it. It’s evident, too, that they’ve done such a good job that it’s nutritious enough to eat.

  1. We didn’t know what it meant to live on the other side of the tracks. But Jackie did. Her aunt and uncle lived along the train tracks. She remembers, “on one side was my family, there were blacks and on the other side were white.”[12] The children would get along, shooting BB guns back and forth (in a friendly way), “We didn’t do anything to hurt each other… we thought it was fun.”

Southern soils are challenging, and club member Jackie Jones’ solution is both creative and reflects her connections with friends and family.

Durham is a city that was divided. There were white businesses and black businesses. White schools and black schools. When the members of the Year Round Garden Club went to school, these divisions were traversed by bus. “I don’t care what part of town you live in, Eastern and Western, Walltown, Hicktown, Hayti and wherever you live. You got to go you get a bus we paid for buses. We did not get free buses. We can get little yellow buses. We used city bus and bought bus tickets, you had to pay for bus tickets, miss that bus at 4 o’clock and see don’t you have to pay to go to get a regular bus and going to get a transfer and pay a nickel for the transfer to get on this side of town.” After the freedom of choice decision, Cynthia was a part of eight black students who enrolled in Brockton Junior High School. But she would only stay for a year, and later attended Hillside High School.

These two sides of Durham would also have different fates. The construction of highway 147 and subsequent destruction of the Hayti neighborhood divided Durham and broke up a prosperous black neighborhood in a city where Civil Rights legislation had yet to take hold. In the name of urban renewal, the highway became a divisive factor as it was the symbolic entrance into the city of Durham.

 

  1. We didn’t know about the sign at Southpoint Mall that read “Durham, 9 miles.” The problem with this sign? It was located in Durham. In one of our interviews, Jackie told us that when the Southpoint mall was first built, a sign near it said 9 miles to Durham. We wouldn’t have thought anything of it until it we heard that Southpoint is actually in Durham and that the sign was placed there to pacify fears of customers who thought they might be too close to the “dangerous” city of Durham.

Durham’s location also played important in the role of the rising Research Triangle Park. RTP as many know it today, was created in the late 1950s to combine the three major research universities of the area and develop a space in which graduates of these universities desired to live in once they graduated.[13] This park, which is quite literally like a playground park in that the property is owned by an entity while still lying within a city’s limits, is in Durham County. However, as the YRGC members told us, it is no mistake that Durham is not mentioned in as the location of RTP.

Durham’s historically African-American neighborhoods are closer to incinerators and factories, and further from green space and parks.

Durham was known as a dangerous city and whether or not that was rhetoric fueled by racism or actual crime statistics remains a debated topic. The YRGC members who were born in the infancy of RTP and construction of 147 noted that Durham gets left out of the conversation of the other two predominantly white cities that make up the other two points of the triangle. Eventually the sign was taken down but the sentiment that safety and protection from Durham comes from staying away from Durham is harmful logic that still affects the city today and how the residents today find themselves at a crossroads of racial division within a physical landscape.

 

  1. We didn’t know you could talk to plants. Talking to your plants, as we’ve come to learn, isn’t such a crazy thing to do. For Paul Lyon, talking to plants is a spiritual exercise that gives him peace of mind and helps alleviate built up tension. In speaking of his connection to his plants, Paul notes, “If you have 24 hours in a day, your first hours would be thanking the good Lord above for allowing you to be on this Earth.”[14] By talking to his plants, Paul expresses his gratitude. “You don’t have to be crazy now but… they’re living. And a lot of plants can help you to live because they absorb certain particles in the air and give off oxygen and purify it.”

It is with this sense of gratitude in mind that Paul and the members of the Year Round Garden Club utilize the garden as a means to practice spiritual devotion. Growing and nurturing these plants requires practicing patience, knowledge, and devotion. It’s a sentiment reflected in the prayer that is recited at each meeting.

 

God bless all words of kindness,

The club has a long tradition of prayer and song to accompany meetings and garden work.

That lift the heart of gloom;

And in life’s barren places,

Plant flowers of love to bloom.

 

Fill our hearts with goodness,

Be thou mindful of each little care;

Take away all sin and evil,

Let flowers of love blossom there.

 

Amen.[15]

 

Thus, it makes sense to talk to one’s plants, as nurturing a garden is a two way street. For the plants, growth is physical, while for the gardener, growth is spiritual.

 

Conclusion:

At the beginning of this semester, if you asked us what a ’45 record, snow ice cream, a persimmon, and a sign by the Southpoint Mall had in common with eating clay, sweeping the yard, living on the other side of the tracks, and talking to plants, we wouldn’t have known where to even begin guessing. But in the face of a gentrifying Durham, and rapidly warming climate, the lessons of the Year Round Garden Club are universally relevant.

The Club is also a reminder of the importance of acknowledging and understanding a community’s history before engaging with them. One of the things that struck us as special about the Year Round Garden Club was that their rich, shared history has fostered a true sense of community. Throughout our meetings, the members told us about how the club has held on to the same prayers, songs, poems, and pledge as well as events, activities and traditions for the more-than 100 years they’ve been in existence.

Even in areas without green space, members organize planting projects, including with herbs, to bring nature inside and to young gardeners.

The club is a reminder of the role that spirituality can play in fostering a deep rooted connection to the natural world. It has helped build an spirit of camaraderie within the club and a feeling of shared responsibility for the wellbeing of one another and the earth below.

The club is also a reminder of the role that building community can play in resisting injustice. Many of the members knew each other since they were adolescents in high school. YRGC has sponsored a senior prom, where the members take a date and reminisce on their younger days and dance the night away, every year since the first one in 1968. And it is more than just a club–it’s a family. And each Christmas, members gather around the same table and share Christmas dinner.

As Durham continues to become gentrified and our climate continues to warm, we look to the model of the Year Round Garden Club; a family-based, community-centered club of faithful gardeners working together to grow and beautify their communities. They are an inspiring example of the potential for the garden to resist the negative impacts of global change on the personal scale.

[1] “Biography | Pauli Murray Project.”

[2] Our History | Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.”

[3] “Company History.”

[4] Williams et al., Group Interview with Year-Round Garden Club.

[5] “Record Formats.”

[6] Williams et al., Group Interview with Year-Round Garden Club.

[7] “Southern Traditions: Why Did My Grandmas Sweep Their Yards? | Hometalk.”

[8] Williams et al., Group Interview with Year-Round Garden Club.

[9] Cornes, Class Visit to the Duke Campus Farm.

[10] “Soil Exhaustion in the Tobacco South – Environmental History.”

[11] Childs, Class Visit to the Duke Forest.

[12] Williams et al., Group Interview with Year-Round Garden Club.

[13] “Birth of an Idea.”

[14] Lyons, Interview with Paul Lyons.

[15] “YRGC Photo Log.”