How do the people who live in a community, bringing their buildings, gardens, culture, and values, affect the land and people around them?
And if the things they’ve created vanish, how can their presence be resurrected to inform the present?
Those are the essential questions of “Landscape, Race, and Culture: Shaping a World of Color in the American South,” a two-and a half-day conference this fall at Old Salem Museums and Gardens. The conference is part of Old Salem’s 22nd Conference on Southern Gardens and Landscapes, and is co-sponsored by Old Salem, the Wake Forest Department of History, and the Southern Garden History Society.
The conference, which addresses various aspects of Southern landscape and gardening, will this year approach the topic from a cultural and historic perspective. For the first time, it will focus entirely on the contributions African-Americans made in shaping their environments, says Martha Hartley, director of Moravian research at Old Salem.
“The African-American impact on the cultural and physical landscape of a place can be very difficult to see because much of what they designed, built, and grew isn’t standing,” says Hartley. “Yet we know they had profound impacts on the areas in which they lived because of what we have in the present day — their musical instruments or their ways of cultivating crops, for example.”
In 2017, Old Salem initiated an effort to retrieve, and reveal through interpretation, information about African-American contributions with an initiative called the Hidden Town Project. Several of the conference’s sessions will focus on ways the historians are bringing previously untold stories, people, and experiences to light as part of the project.
“Enslaved and free people of African descent have a very deep history here in the urban landscape of Salem, although it’s not always present,” Hartley says. “Our challenge is to use what we can find out to reveal this history, and to tell the truth.
“Some of the places have changed so much that they’re now completely unidentifiable, but we can find out about the people through archaeology, research, and by connecting with their descendants.”
Other sessions at the conference will focus on understanding cultural and historic landscapes of places such as James Madison’s Montpelier, West Africa’s coast, and the South Carolina sea islands. Speakers will include archaeologists, anthropologists, and architectural and art historians from across the country.
Kofi Boone, an associate professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, will join a host of other nationally recognized scholars as the conference’s keynote speaker.
And landscape architecture is not the same as landscaping, he cautions.
“Landscape architecture looks much more broadly at the land, its features, the people who live on it, and how they use it,” says Boone. “There are more far-reaching implications. When we build things and adjust the landscape, whether that be a house, a garden, or the Blue Ridge Parkway, we affect other people. It’s not a passive process.”
North Carolina has a great landscape architecture legacy. Two of America’s most famous landscapes — Biltmore and its surrounding gardens and forests, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame, and the Blue Ridge Parkway — are right in our backyard, Boone says.
There is a less flattering side to that history, however.
“Black people have made significant contributions to our environment, but you’d be hard-pressed to find mention of them in any landscape architecture book,” he says. “That is coming to a head now because, around the world, so many people are trying to increase their visibility and inclusion.”
Inclusion has typically been seen as a benefit only to the newly included. In reality, it’s a two-way street, Boone says.
“What are the benefits of reconsidering these places more fully? The opportunity cost of not doing so is that we miss out on the full story of the place, its people, their knowledge, and what they can teach us today,” he says.
“We give them the chance to be part of the solution.”
Want to go?
What: “Landscape, Race, and Culture: Shaping a World of Color in the American South”
When: Sept. 26-28, 2019
Where: Old Salem Visitor Center and other locations
Misc.: More information, including event pricing, is available online.