Freedom Gardens Take Root

From the New York Times

ENSLAVED Africans did not win their freedom in order to starve. Kathe Hambrick-Jackson knew that much from her work as the founder and executive director of the River Road African American Museum here in this town, 60-odd miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans.

But Ms. Hambrick-Jackson, 54, likes to recall what happened when she asked a group of second graders, “If you were going to free yourself and leave this plantation tonight, what would you bring with you to eat?”

“One of them said, ‘a bag of potato chips,’ ” Ms. Hambrick-Jackson said. “And I said: ‘No, this was the year 1810. They weren’t invented yet.’ Then they started to say hamburgers and hot dogs. I said no, no, no.”

The answer ultimately took the form of 10 raised beds in a community plot that she calls the Freedom Garden. Here, the museum raises plants that would have been familiar to slaves from both Africa and the New World.

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Hambrick-Jackson was hanging cards describing the garden’s specimens, with the help of two children.

Ms. Hambrick-Jackson’s brother, who runs a mortuary across the river, told her she was “junking up the garden” with these signs. What kind of kid wants to read about African botany? But Ms. Hambrick-Jackson figures “there are 50 kids in a one-block radius” who use the garden as a shortcut. Hang the labels at eye level and they’ll learn by accident.

“Where’s my nail crew?” she asked, standing next to a muscadine grapevine sprawled over a wooden fence. Like blackberries, she said, these fruits would have been easy forage for freedom seekers in the backwoods.

Other plants in the garden, like cowpeas, okra and rice, were indigenous to the Senegambia region of West Africa. Farmers would have raised them in fields near Atlantic ports like Gorée, in order to larder slave ships. Leftover food became seed stock for enslaved Africans to grow on the plantation.

In a sense, the Freedom Garden may sound like thousands of other African-American gardens across the country. These foods have been staples in many black kitchens for centuries. But an heirloom seed can be a complicated legacy when it comes from a person who sowed it in slavery.