Celebration of Women in Horticulture: Abra Lee

Abra Lee, owner of Conquer the Soil

Abra Lee, owner of Conquer the Soil, has been digging in the dirt for as long as she can remember. Horticulture is integrally part of her family, her culture, her history. 

“What drew me to horticulture was a combination of things. It was me growing up in Atlanta and going down to the country on the weekends to Barnesville, GA, where my mama’s from, dirt road country which is an hour south of Atlanta,” said Lee, a national speaker and writer with decades of experience in the green industry. “Her family had a farm there so I was always around agriculture. Growing up in the city of Atlanta, Atlanta is truly a city in the forest so I was always around trees and wildlife just naturally from the neighborhoods I lived in. When I was a child, my dad was also director of parks for the City of Atlanta.”

Lee said she may not have gone to Auburn University with the intention of majoring in horticulture “it was always around me.”

“It’s like being a legacy in this field in terms of carrying on the tradition of what my family was doing naturally,” she said. “When you’re growing up, you just sort of think there’s five jobs out there — doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, and maybe police or firefighter. I don’t know how my life would have been different if someone had walked into the room when I was five and said, ‘You know you can be an arborist, right?’ People don’t even know that these are options on the table and you can make a living and you can carve your own lane.”

Lee, along with Savannah Shephard, Founder of the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition, will be this year’s speakers at the Ambler Arboretum’s Annual Celebration of Women in Horticulture, which will be held online on Tuesday, March 16, from 6 to 8 p.m. Register Online. After you register, a confirmation email will be sent with a Zoom link to the event. This program is part of the Ambler Arboretum Speaker Series and is offered in a pay-what-you-can format to work toward creating equitable access to all of our programs.

This year's Annual Celebration of Women in Horticulture is all about telling untold stories. After years in the Green Industry as a municipal arborist, landscape manager, grounds superintendent, extension agent and Longwood Gardens Fellow working internationally in France, Lee has dedicated her life to uncovering and sharing stories that need to be told. She founded Conquer the Soil as a platform that combines Black garden history and pop culture to raise awareness of horticulture.

“I just changed my Instagram profile to the ‘Reigning Hype Woman of Black Garden History’ and that’s really what I do today. I am out here hyping people up on these under told stories. It’s not just Black garden history, this is American history, she said. “There are many days where I feel some anger because why didn’t I know this history before? Why wasn’t I taught this? Then you also say ‘This is so good. These people deserve their shine,’” she said. “I don’t care that they’ve been gone 50 years, sometimes 100 years. You can’t do anything but feel uplifted and educated and proud — extra proud for me as a Black woman who has literally worked in their shoes — as an American. I tell these stories; they are my passion, they are my platform and I am proud of them. I just want to continue to evolve that work and turn these things into curriculum, turn these things into programs.”

Lee said friends who had no initial interest in history provided the inspiration to take these stories and share them to broader and broader audiences.

“I have friends that don’t care anything about history, but when I mix it in with these garden facts, they are all in. The beautiful thing about Black garden history is that it can’t be separated from Black history and it can’t be separated from American history,” she said. “So, when people come to me thinking they are going to learn about a florist, you’re also going to learn about Jim Crow, gentrification, the Women’s Revolution, Civil Rights. It becomes this total package and it helps you realize that if we’re just teaching history the way we teach it — we’re going to start with George Washington or enslaved people and go from there — not everyone wants to learn their history that way. You have to meet people where they are. This has allowed me to teach people things about our culture, their culture, our country but using horticulture as this microphone and it’s been incredible.”

Conquer the Soil, Lee said, started off as a fashion brand related to horticulture — and I’m still on that road — but it’s become much more than that.

“One of my mentors, Ryan Gainey, helped me when I was dealing with ‘imposter syndrome,’ being a landscape manager at this international airport in Atlanta saying ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing.’ He was like ‘Just know your history, you’ll be fine.’ I thought he meant Hanging Gardens of Babylon, deep horticulture history, but what he meant was know your history, know what your people have done for gardening,” she said. “It was also my mom saying ‘Abra, you come from this. This is in your blood. You can do this. You weren’t the first Black woman to do ornamental horticulture.’”

Lee recalled these conversations occurred prior to the explosion of social media “and I’m thinking I’m all alone in this.”

My mom was like ‘Are you crazy? Who do you think built these gardens in the South?’ I was like ‘Oh yeah, that was Black people, huh.’ All the while I was still working as a landscape manager at the (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International) Airport and as an extension agent at the University of Georgia and doing speaking engagements with garden clubs on the weekend,” she said. “I would start telling these little history facts that I was learning — enslaved people were the ones who saved heirloom roses. They were the ones that went back to the antebellum homes and dug them up and preserved them — that’s why I think you should put a rose in your garden because it means something to our culture. My friends were like, ‘Wait, what? Count me in!’ It wasn’t enough to tell them plant a rose because of full sun. When I connected it to them, to real life, that’s when they were like tell me more.”

By sharing these often little-known stories, Lee would learn about other even lesser known, but no less important, people and history. 

“I’d share stories about people like Wormley Hughes in Virginia or Annie Mae Vann Reid and I’d have ladies come up to me with stories — ‘I’m from Chattanooga and when I was growing up there was this Black woman who owned her own greenhouse.’ I’d go to the Chattanooga Historical Society and sure enough these things had happened,” she said. “Any time I speak or I write, I think about one of my girlfriends, Courtney, a Black woman that I grew up with. I write things as if I’m talking to her; I’m writing as a southern Black woman talking to another Black woman. I’m not writing it like ‘The charming rose in the quaint garden.’ I’m like ‘This rose was popping off!’ and I get to say it in our language and I’m not assimilating.”

Her hope with Conquer the Soil, Lee said, is that “not only do people learn history but that people feel empowered to share their story the way they want to share it.”

“People need to show up in the room as themselves with no apologies. I want people to see there’s not just one way to do this horticulture thing,” she said. “You can do it in the way you know how to do best. I want them to learn horticulture, I want them to learn their history and I want them to feel freedom.”

During the March 16 event, Lee said, she will be sharing stories from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and the women who have made their mark on American horticultural history, exploring how these women used plants as their love language to express pride in community and self.

“I think that there’s this real false narrative, especially when I was growing up, if you get an agriculture career that’s almost like slavery all over again and I’m not going to be outside in the fields,” she said. “I think that things get lost over time, things get twisted, the truth gets destroyed, whether it’s a good or bad truth. There’s this idea that Black people hated the land, that we ran from the land as soon as we got a chance to go work at IBM.”

That’s simply not true, Lee said.

“Black people were brought here in bondage — and I say this all the time — because they were exceptional cultivators of the soil. The descendants of those enslaved people were also exceptional cultivators of soil and they loved the land. They didn’t just love the land to do row crop agriculture for people, they loved beautification as well,” she said. “I think about this all the time, how it is very well possible that you’re enslaved and you can also still love roses and camelias. I want these folks to be humanized.”

The conversation, she said, isn’t just about the enslaved people. “I’m talking about the people that came before us,” she said

“I want people to see ‘wow, I’m not the first Black woman to own a florists’. If anything, I want them ask what happened to all of these Black women that owned all this land, that grew their own flowers. What happened to these Black landscape architects? You see kind of a rising of the phoenix again now, a cultural revolution, but this already existed before us. Now history is repeating itself, but how did all of this get lost?” she said. “People were not only surviving, they were thriving. They were creators. They were beautifying their own communities. It’s important that people know that, especially if they feel like they’re the only ones — that someone came before them, that did the same thing and they succeeded. They have a point of context to relate it to, that ‘the greatness doesn’t start with me; I continue that legacy.’”

Lee said she makes it her business “as the reigning hype woman of Black garden history to make sure that the stories I share are uplifting and educational.”

“Our story is a story of extreme struggle and complexity and absolutely terrible, awful things, but it is also a story of joy and celebration and community. I’m not ignorant to the Black woman in South Carolina who owned a five-acre nursery and greenhouse and she’s doing all of this at the height of Jim Crow where a 14-year-old Black child is literally electrocuted saying that he raped this grown woman, which just wasn’t true and we know it wasn’t true,” she said. “I don’t gloss over the fact that this was happening in real time. What I’m seeing is that these people persevered anyway. They didn’t let fear and pain and the weight of America and the system of America hold them down. They still found a way and made it anyway.”

Lee said she shares what she feels her story subjects would want her to share.

“I do this by never glossing over the struggle but saying look ‘I was somebody. I was a businesswoman, I made beautiful things for people, I changed communities. People went to school to study floriculture because they came through my shop and saw what I was doing.’ People need to hear this,” she said. “I think about Zora Neale Hurston (author, anthropologist, and filmmaker), how she’s one of these women who was early to capture black rural landscapes in her writing and talk about them as a thing of beauty. She wasn’t talking about them as unkempt and junky and ugly. She was talking about these glass bottles wedged into the edging and these flowers scattered about the yard and saying how beautiful they were.”

Lee said she discovered Hurston’s sister-in-law was a flower farmer with a very successful flower business — “this Black woman had a chauffeur!”

“So, what does that tell me? It tells me Zora Neal Hurston was out there clipping flowers, putting bouquets together. Because her sister-in-law was that busy; she had to get her family and friends to pitch in —can you imagine Zora Neal Hurston casually back there putting together your bouquet?” she laughed. “Or somebody like Mahalia Jackson (an American gospel singer, widely considered one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century), a florist; she was someone who would sing at your funeral if you bought her flowers. Mahalia Jackson, what are you doing with those roses in your hand? You’re Mahalia Jackson! Stuff like that is astonishing to me and that is what I want to share with people because it is exciting.”

People need to look beyond George Washington Carver and dig deeper, Lee said.

“He is, as he should be, the king of the hill, the top of the mountain, but he’s not the only one. Black women were here too. Other people were here too. Native American people were here too. Look at the stories that I know, but then I also think of the stories we’ve lost and what we’ve lost is really the more painful part for me to navigate. What have we lost creatively, what have we lost socially, what have we lost in terms of intellectual sharing?” she said. “I want people to get excited. One of my main things is critical thinking — really start thinking about everything around you and start asking thoughtful questions. I think it makes everyone better and more well-informed and I think that’s the lane that all of us need to go down at this point.”

Lee said she wants her March 16 talk to be just the beginning of the conversation.  

“To be at a school with so much women’s history, to have this platform to talk about women, and in my case I will be speaking about Black women, it’s incredible. This is the type of information that we need to share — women have always been here, they’ve always been leading, they’ve always had these incredible contributions to horticulture, but we’ve always been at the fringes in the conversation and that needs to stop. Our come up is not somebody else’s setback,” she said. “If we’re going to make these changes; if you ask those questions to yourself in terms of diversity, inclusion, equity, we have to realize that it’s not just a strategic plan.”

It’s not like planning a garden “where you can map out what you want to do and meet these goals in three years; it doesn’t work like that,” Lee said.

“It’s stepping over the pond, hopping over the fence, taking three steps back, getting a running start. You have to figure out ways to continue to push forward,” she said. “I want people to come out of this talk with hope, that things have been better, that they can get better, and I hope that they come out knowing something more than they did coming in. You need to be telling your kids about this history. I don’t want these people’s stories to die with me. I want these names to be recognizable names in Black history, in American history, in world history.”

Join the Ambler Arboretum for talks and workshops highlighting sustainability, women’s influence in horticulture and the healing power of plants during the monthly Ambler Arboretum Speaker Series. Information: kathleen.salisbury@temple.edu or 267-468-8400.

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