Old Salem Museum and Gardens will host the 22nd conference on Southern gardens and landscapes later this month. This biennial conference is a chance for horticulturists, gardeners, scholars, history enthusiasts and the general public to learn more about a specific subject matter and its context within the Southeastern United States.
This year’s conference is Landscape, Race, and Culture: Shaping a World of Color in the American South. Unique to this year’s conference, is this theme’s connection to Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project. Launched earlier this year, the Hidden Town Project is an initiative to research and understand the history of enslaved and free Africans and African-Americans who once lived in Salem.
Over the course of the two-and-a half-day conference, scholars from universities across the Southeast will present lectures on a wide variety of topics central to racial connectivity and landscape. For example, lectures will explore how historical gardens and plantations such as Middleton Place, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier were built, honed and even designed by enslaved African-Americans.
Lecturers will explore landscapes of native African, enslaved Africans and emancipated African American populations. The conference ultimately aims to highlight the historical contributions of African-Americans to past, present and future landscapes of the South.
The keynote speaker of the conference is Kofi Boone, Professor of Landscape Architecture at North Carolina State University and member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Boone’s work places emphasis on “environmental justice with a focus on democratic design and cultural landscapes.”
Boone will present his lecture “Black Landscapes Matter” on Thursday, Sept. 26. In his lecture, Boone frames his message around a quote from Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement — “To be seen, to live with dignity, and to be connected.” Boone deconstructs this quote, presenting each part as a challenge.
When I use the word “landscape,” I’m typically referring to the trees, shrubs and garden outside my backdoor. Within the conversation of “Black Landscapes Matter,” it’s important to treat landscape as place, setting, or the land forms that surround us. We are then able to see a landscape as anywhere we live, work and exist — outdoors or indoors.
In past lectures about this same subject, Boone has made specific references to landscapes in North Carolina that have past and present significance to the conversation of ‘”Black Landscapes.” Included are the Greensboro Woolworth Lunch Counter, the racialized topography of low-lying towns like Princeville, and the once segregated parks of Raleigh.
“In North Carolina alone, there are many plantations, towns, campuses, formal and informal spaces that were made by black people,” Boone said. “Recovering those places and engaging their makers and residents and users is needed. Another role is education, both formal and informal.
“I think we need to challenge our mainstream story of landscape and landscape architecture and respond to the very exclusionary canon of design it represents. We have to illustrate what is lost by not including these contributions. One example of the cost of not being inclusive, is the lack of black people in our profession or in our classrooms. And if groups of people are not included in the conversations, not supported to pursue the professions charged with addressing these changes, we are all poorer for their lack of inclusion.”
A recent Washington Post article by Hannah Knowles examined how Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is “talking more honestly about slavery.” Guides and interpreters at Monticello and other historical Southern plantations and gardens are making a point to talk about the enslavement of Africans that built these places. This transparency allows visitors to learn the true history of these sites and gives a voice to the enslaved who built them — revealing how “Black Landscapes Matter.”
Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project is committed to this same sort of transparency, seeking to research and reveal the history of the enslaved and free African and African-American community of Salem.
“In many locations today, there is lack of awareness of historic African American places,” said Martha Hartley, the director of Moravian research at Old Salem. “Locally, the presence of African Americans in historic Salem in many ways, disappeared through time, and Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project seeks to reveal more broadly the history of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans in the town.”
“Goals include identifying and archaeologically investigating dwelling sites, integrating the narrative in to the museum experience, connecting with descendants, and fostering dialogue. The initiative builds on a commitment to truth in history that began more than 30 years ago when Old Salem was at the forefront of museum efforts to address African American history.”
The focus of this year’s landscape conference explores the complicated subject of racism and inequality — a subject that is certainly still palpable in our modern-day society. I encourage all to attend the conference, especially Kofi Boone’s keynote address. It’s important, in so many ways.
Landscape, Race, and Culture: Shaping a World of Color in the American South will be held Sept. 26 to 28 at Old Salem Museum and Gardens in Winston-Salem. General registration is $295 and $275 for Friends/Members of Old Salem/MESDA & Southern Garden History Society. Registration has been extended through Monday, September 16 and includes all lectures, activities, meals, breaks, materials and museum admissions.
Boone’s keynote lecture ‘Black Landscapes Matter’ will be presented Thursday, Sept. 26, from 7 to 8 p.m. at the James A. Gray, Jr. auditorium, Old Salem Visitor Center. A reception will precede the lecture, starting at 6:30 p.m. Keynote lecture tickets are offered as a separate ticketed event and are $10. Tickets for the conference and for the keynote lecture are available at oldsalem.org or at 336-721-7300.