Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with Virginia Humanities, sponsors residential fellows during the academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. Author and independent scholar Meredith Henne Baker is currently researching and developing a book project entitled Scenic Sisters: How Virginia’s Garden Club Women Changed a State. Her research is also contributing to a statewide multi-site commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Black women’s garden clubs in Virginia in 2022. She can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In midcentury Roanoke, Ethel Earley could often be found weeding flowerbeds outside her home. Within her segregated Gainsboro community, teachers knew Ethel as a cafeteria manager, serving up nutritious lunches at the brick Gilmer Avenue Elementary School. Churchgoers knew her as a constant presence at Hill Street Baptist. Children peeking through the bookshelves at the Gainsboro Library knew her as the vivacious host for their “Reading is Fun” holiday parties.1
But outside of Gainsboro, Virginia’s Black women gardeners knew Ethel as the Queen.
In 1927, Ethel founded Big Lick Garden Club, one of Roanoke’s first African American gardening clubs.2 Thanks to her leadership and a small army of tireless gardeners, in short order Big Lick made a big impression on city leaders. With heads turned by spotless alleys, weed-free walkways, and the neighborhood’s increasing curb appeal, the Chamber of Commerce and Roanoke’s City Council suddenly paid attention to a part of the city they’d neglected.3 The Council tackled overdue street repairs and donated a decommissioned post office to the club out of gratitude. Big Lick converted the space into a community center and unsurprisingly landscaped it to the nines.4 At the city’s request, Earley collaborated with Blanche Davis, president of the white Roanoke Valley Garden Club, to beautify the new highway entrance to the city.5 Word spread across the state about the ways Earley’s garden club broke barriers and improved the quality of life for Black Roanoke residents.
It was no surprise on 22 April 1932, when horticulturist Asa Sims of the Hampton Institute launched the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia that Ethel Earley was voted the organization’s first president. Extension staff at Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Virginia State and Hampton assisted the clubs, providing horticultural education and professional support. This women’s gardening federation grew from seven initial clubs to 65 in the first decade, and soon boasted over a thousand members. In its second decade, the NGC expanded to over 100 chapters statewide, not including affiliated junior clubs.6
Garden Clubs Plant Seeds of Change
At a time when Civil Rights were making headlines across Virginia, gardening might have seemed impractical or even frivolous. It was anything but. A state farm agent from Campbell County, C.A. Elliot, led floral arrangement workshops for the Peanut City Federation clubs in Suffolk. He observed, “[working with flowers] offers a leisure time hobby for many individuals, and it can serve as a rest from every day [sic] life.”7 Barred from most recreational outlets and burdened with the daily insults of segregated southern life, Black women found garden clubs a haven that nurtured not only plants, but leadership and talent. Women’s lives were enriched through elaborate luncheons, educational lectures, and formal flower shows with judges and ribbons. In its own unique way, garden club participation acknowledged dignity and value.
It also destabilized the Jim Crow status quo. Earley’s collaborative experiences with white women’s garden clubs in Roanoke weren’t uncommon. Black women’s clubs frequently partnered with local white club members on beautification projects. The groups exchanged seeds and toured gardens together. One NGC leader in Richmond wrote, “We visited about ten private gardens . . . The work of the garden clubs is doing a wonderful thing; that is, they are making our white friends see us in a different light. They come into our homes, see how we live . . . When gardening is discussed, we are one.”8
In addition to fostering interracial cooperation during Jim Crow, Black women’s Garden Clubs beautified redlined neighborhoods and secured civic improvements, increasing the property values of intentionally devalued districts across Virginia.9 As early environmentalists, club women championed conservation efforts and sponsored essay contests on preserving the natural environment. Gardening women created home and school gardens in food deserts and planted trees to shade schoolyards. Civil Rights leaders noted the support of Virginia’s Black gardening women at rallies and cheered their noteworthy success in registering members to vote.
As more women joined garden clubs, the state visibly changed. “So inherent is the sense of beauty that this movement necessarily is contagious,” noted a Hampton instructor, “[and] has in many instances become the center of community progress.”10 In 1955, the Roanoke Tribune celebrated the NGC’s work, noting “the efforts of this organization can be felt all over the State of Virginia. Wherever there are garden clubs there is beauty.”11
90th Anniversary Commemoration
Despite their considerable size and influence, the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia (later the Federated State Garden Clubs) are virtually unknown today.
That concerns horticulturalists like Abra Lee, a former Longwood Gardens Fellow, who views Virginia’s Black garden clubs as the originators of an important movement that spread across the entire United States. Lee notes, “These women honestly worked miracles and changed the look of the landscape in many neighborhoods. There were thousands of women who went on to do this.”12
As the 90th anniversary approaches in 2022, Virginia is recognizing the Black women’s garden club movement as a historically important phenomenon that moved civil rights, the conservation movement, and civic beautification forward in every corner of this state. Plans for commemorations are underway, both virtual and in-person. The Hermitage Museum and Garden in Norfolk hosts a symposium in February. The Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum in Lynchburg celebrates on Saturday, 23 April 2022, with a program led by some of the country’s leading Black gardeners, horticulturalists, and landscape designers. The Library of Virginia will hold a Richmond event during Garden Week in April.
An unidentified African American woman standing in a garden, 195-?
Lee F. Rodgers Photograph Collection, Portsmouth Public Library Photograph Collection. Accessed from Library of Virginia catalog
The challenge now is uncovering artifacts, oral histories, and memorabilia connected to Black women’s gardening clubs. Anniversary planners are hopeful more is out there, perhaps uncatalogued in a local museum, on a family or church bookshelf, or in a banker’s box in the attic. With any luck, this 90th anniversary will have an “Antiques Roadshow” effect, drawing out more of these records and keeping alive the vibrant story of Virginia’s Black garden clubs.
How You Can Preserve This Legacy
- Were you or a family member involved in a gardening club? The statewide Black gardening organization’s last meeting on record was in 1992 at Virginia Union University. The Newport News Everblooming Garden Club—perhaps the longest continuously meeting Black gardening club in Virginia—met until 2002.
- Are you (or were you) a member of the African American gardening community?
- Might your family or church photo albums have photographs of club activities or members? Many churches and organizations (Evening Star, Tree of Life Lodge, etc.) had “Floral Clubs,” which were an important part of the women’s gardening story.
- Do you have letters or records from African American gardening meetings or conferences?
The Library of Virginia encourages the preservation of these historic records. If interested in donating materials or lending them for scanning to the Library of Virginia, please call 804-692-3703.
1Tribune (Roanoke, VA), Volume 12, Number 45, December 12, 1953.
2Christine Hale Martin, Follow the Green Arrow, Vol. 1, (Richmond, Virginia) Dietz Press, 1970, pg 29.
3“Interesting Reports Heard On Gardens: State Organization is Launched.” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), May 14, 1932. Ethel retired as president in 1934. “Rose B. Browne New President VA. Gardeners,” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), June 16, 1934.
4J.C. Toles, “Roanoke.” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), Dec 12, 1931.
5J.C. Toles, “Roanoke.” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), Dec 12, 1931. Davis would go on to head the state GCV (a segregated white club organization) the same year that Ethel Earley would head the NGC.
6For comparison, this was twice the number of chapters in the white Garden Club of Virginia at the time. The NGC later went by Federated Garden Clubs or Federation of Garden Clubs, or sometimes State Garden Clubs.
7“Flower Workshop is Well Attended,” Suffolk News-Herald, Volume 32, Number 240, 11 October 1954.
8Violet Schroeder, “Why Garden Clubs?” The Southern Workman, Hampton Institute, April 1939 Volume LXVIII, No. 4. Pg 113
9H. Hamilton Williams, Handbook of the Negro Garden Club of Virginia. Hampton, Virginia: Hampton Institute, Department of ornamental horticulture and Division of summer and extension study, 1943. Hathi Trust https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924002827545&view=1up&seq=85&skin=2021, accessed 3 September, 2021.
10Violet Schroeder, “Why Garden Clubs?” The Southern Workman, Hampton Institute, April 1939 Volume LXVIII, No. 4. Pg 111-2.
11“Garden Clubs Hold 23rd Session,” Tribune (Roanoke, VA), Volume 14, Number 19, 11 June, 1955.
12Bush, Allen, “Abra Lee Conquers the Soil,” Garden Rant, July 14, 2021. https://gardenrant.com/2021/07/abra-lee-black-garden-history.html accessed 6 October, 2021.
[Unidentified African American Woman in a Garden], n.d. Waynesboro Public Library Photograph Collection. Accessed from Library of Virginia catalog.