Plants and People, remembering the Bronx River’s African-American Heritage

All known records for Bronx walking tour attendance were shattered on March 12, 2011.  Over one-hundred and ten people joined the first tour to outline eras of importance in the history of African-Americans along the Bronx River.  From Soundview north to the Westchester border, many people of African descent have called these landscapes home.  Kicking off at historic Boston Road in the Allerton neighborhood and concluding where the famous New York Draft Riots blew up far from Manhattan, walkers made their own soundtrack.  What sound?  Old time instrument sounds! 

          Plant materials turned instruments carried the beat.  Let’s get in tune with those processed vegetables simple and grand.  Tambourines’ wooden frames and hollow-gourded maracas blended with cracking acorns beneath so many feet along the way.  This place-based tour and related research are known as Bronx River Sankofa*.  Sankofa includes many stories of people’s plant life: ones harnessed to make necessities, medicines, and more.  We will explore and imagine what these plants may have meant beyond pure economics, and how we came to conserve them.

          This blog you are reading is a remembrance.  It will feature both community sketches and personal profiles…as they unfolded in time.  Hear the sounds of times past by clicking on the period headings (i.e. Colonial New York; Revolution, Emancipation, and Civil War, etc.) for each section.  This essay is a combination of Bronx County Historical Society published works and a decade of independent research by a Bronx African-American History Project Community Researcher.      

 Lenape Indian home

1613-1783 Colonial New York

African-Americans have helped shape the society we now call the Bronx since 1670 when the first of them arrived as involuntary laborers from the island of Barbados to work the 1,920 acre Manor of Morrisania under sugar merchants Lewis Morris and family, who brought them.  To imagine that homestead, visit the Valentine-Varian House in Norwood.  That two and a half story Georgian-styled farmhouse with characteristic symmetrical design was established in 1758.  The original owner’s (Isaac Valentine) land extended east to the Bronx River just like the Morris holdings.  Valentine was a blacksmith.  Furnaces were dependent on large quantities of wood to support the fires that melted metal for horse shoes, tools, cooking implements, carriage axles, etc..   According to Prof. Lloyd Ultan, the eight slaves he held were far fewer in number than the Morris family held.  Farming was important at both sites.  Crops of the period included beans, wheat, corn, tobacco, rye, barley, apples, and pears.  In this pre-industrial period, most materials used for all purposes were simple.  Even the component parts of a common boat could be discerned largely by sight and simple inspection.  Here’s another instance in which locally harvested trees were important.  Native pine, hickory and oak species were plentiful.  Some enslaved Africans were boatmen, navigating sloops filled with produce and dry goods up and down the Hudson River.  They worked sawmills and gristmills beginning at today’s 182nd Street.  They cut lumber into logs and ground rye into flour and corn into meal.  There, large grinding stones were powered by the Bronx River.  In an age of simple transport and semi-locally-oriented economies, these early industries were crucial to the lives of all settlers.  The mills of West Farms are one reason it became an early population center amid virgin forests and wetlands elsewhere in what would become the Bronx.  Do you know the Bronx Zoo (Wildlife Conservation Society) on the Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road?  These 265 acres include much of the former slave-estate of James DeLancey and extended family.  One indicator of the centrality of bound labor to that early economic system comes to us in a run-away notice published by John P. Delancey in the 1813 pages of the West-Chester Patriot (Source: Annotated Primary Source Documents by Anthony C. Greene).   

Natural wealth

1784-1865 Revolution, Emancipation and Civil War

Isaac Varian was the second owner of what we enjoy today as the old stone Museum of Bronx History at 3266 Bainbridge Ave, Bronx, NY 10467.  Holding three involuntary African laborers, he re-established this vast holding, stretching north to Yonkers, as a source of meat for markets along the original Boston Road route, and possibly Manhattan.  Varian was a butcher.  Some portion of the livestock feed—including the crops mentioned earlier—would have been produced on site.  Natural springs and the Bronx River itself would have supplied water. 

Historic Black New York

1866-1916 Raising the Roof: establishing independent churches

A quantity of fireplace timber would have heated the Bronx’s first known independent African-American church during the Victorian era.  Later, carpentry adapted early homes to three more Black churches we can visit today!  Woodlawn Cemetery’s 1882 burial of Alina C. Martin in the DiZerega plot provides a great opportunity to consider Centreville African Methodist Episcopal Church, probably established in the 1850s, which appears on maps by 1868.  That A.M.E. church was sited to the NE of today’s Parkchester development at a provincial commercial center convenient to a good number of African-American service professionals (coach-drivers, horse-tenders, butlers, maids, others) working on the estates of the east Bronx then.  It was a time when newly established commuter trains, ferries, and private ships made many waterfront Bronx communities convenient and desirable to Manhattan’s executive classes on par with Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Martin may have worked the DiZerega estate, Island Hall, in what became Ferry Point Park in the twentieth century.

           The “three more black churches” cited are now over one-hundred years old including: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Butler Memorial Church, and Trinity Baptist Church.

Old school learning

1917-1938 War, Renaissance, and Depression

This too was a heyday of carpentry as ambitious African-Americans began to move to the central Bronx from Harlem, the American south and the Caribbean.  Artist Jacob Lawrence dramatized this period in his Great Migration series.  A privileged minority bought existing wood-frame houses where they exhibited their class identity and aspirations. Between 1920 and 1921, they landmarked their arrival when St. David’s Episcopal Church (founded 1895) erected a building for those too dark for Harlem’s elite St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.  This Mediterranean-derived brick and timber one-level house of worship was designed by New York State’s first registered Black architect Vertner Tandy.  Wooden beams both acquired and custom-built came to hold up community pride as much as weight.   

Carver bust at the Hall of Fame

1939-1965 Getting organized, expanding opportunity

This was the heyday of domestic horticulture for all social classes.  In this period, municipal housing projects had their own tree care crew and larger maintenance staffs.  An expanding middle class of African descendant New Yorkers from various points in the diaspora bought large numbers of private houses in the north and east Bronx and Mount Vernon.  Lawns were neat and flowers were abundant.

1980 poster @ W. Farms Rapids Park

1966-1985 Movement Years

Afro-Caribbean music—largely played with the kinds of instruments that opened this article—was preserved when Casa Amadeo was established in 1969.  Mike Amadeo, music writer and guitar player bought and renamed this existing Latin music shop where one can still find the best of the old and new.  Standing outside after-hours, you can often hear live sessions in the same building once occupied by Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. 

          Earth Day was established in 1970.  Burgeoning eco-awareness was highly visible in a wide array of new or expanded permanent initiatives from the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality to Pelham Bay Park.  Many groups began to focus on restoring the Bronx River.  In 1974, the Bronx River Restoration Project (BXRR) was established by Ruth Anderberg.  BXRR was as committed to documenting and stewarding the plants along the banks as the water flowing between them.  Fred Singleton, Project Dir. assembled summer youth employment program members and Boy Scouts to rehabilitate an original Bronx River Parkway path from 1925.  Their riverside work between Gun Hill Road & Allerton Avenue was captured in a 1983 (August 18 Metro section) NY Daily News article entitled “60 Bronx youths are on right path.”

Historic Charlotte Gardens

1986-1997 Civic Renewal

Let’s talk science and ornamental horticulture!  Jamaican-born Vietnam War veteran Keith Lloyd was the founding curator of the orchid collection at New York Botanical Garden (N.Y.B.G.). He vested four and a half years in the American Air Force, seventeen at Lenox Hill Hospital as a medical technician and twenty years at N.Y.B.G. including studies at its School of Horticulture through 2000.

           Keith’s been a community gardener on the Upper East side in the 90s and loves poetry and literature which he often recited as he worked.  Brother Keith (he prefers being addressed less formally) was aided in his efforts by African-American soprano opera singer Jessye Norman (NYBG distinguished adviser) who donated several orchid specimens and even gave a fundraiser concert for the Garden in1998 at Lincoln Center. Keith’s legacy is large. Today, his work and the projects he initiated helps N.Y.B.G. raise large sum$.  The orchid cases at the Library Building rotunda around which numerous earned income activities are held and a second live display within the Conservatory were begun during his tenure.  Orchids (Orchidacea) are the largest family of flowering plants, with approximately 30,000 species found on every continent except Antarctica. Orchids come in many different sizes, shapes and colors. The Sarah Davis Smith Orchid Collection he cultivated remains vast, featuring representative examples of the orchid flora of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas.

Dr. Kobe Abdul-Salim, is an ivy league-trained botanist (graduated circa 2003) who taught a few classes at N.Y.B.G..  A field botanist, part of his research is concerned with associations between plant communities in Africa and South America including St. John’s Wort and Symphomia.  Dr. Abdul-Salim taught classes in the continuing education dept., roughly, between 2004 and 2011.  He is from Harlem and also briefly taught at a mid-western university.

Karen Young-Washington, is a co-founder of the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGs), and active on the boards of Just Food, the NYC Community Garden Coalition, and the New York Botanical Garden.  Sister Washington has lived in the Bronx since 1985 and saw Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s legacy project Bronx Green-Up (BGU) begin.  BGU helped her establish the Garden of Happiness (with forty 6′ X 8′ plots) in 1989 (transferred to Parks in 1998) on her home block as one of its first efforts.  She also partners with BGU on BX Community Board 6’s community multi-cultural—her neighborhood is increasingly Latino/a—gardener’s association La Familia Verde Garden Coalition.  The Coalition is associated with a health fair, fire safety instruction, a food pantry, and a Cornell Extension program to teach young scientists about gardening and nutrition.  This native New Yorker has been a physical therapist for over thirty-seven years.  In Greening the Bronx (Bronx Times June 8, 2006; Ciafardini, Bobby), Washington declared “Bronx Green-Up turned me into an activist…my involvement has expanded my horizons.” 

Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference

1998-Present  Fast Changes: steps forward and back

The foods of an exploding immigrant population from continental Africa is bringing the Bronx new spices sold in specialty grocers and restaurants run by these New Yorkers.  Meanwhile, neo-conservative policy at the national and state level reveals its truths in greater dependence on food stamps for more locals. 

          The career of Charles Vasser and the Butterfly Project are emblematic of the Bronx since 1998.  Chuck is the former Director of Community Affairs (promoted from Human Resources Director) at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo.  He was an Executive Committee member and Vice-Chairman to the Bronx River Working Group and a charter board member to the Bronx River Alliance whose articles of Incorporation he signed.

          Chuck worked at the Zoo for twenty years.  He started his career at the South Bronx Development Organization near his native Morrisania.  Growing up, he often visited Crotona Park where he grew vegetables in the community garden which still exists there.  Vasser was a tenant organizer in the 1970s and 1980s and has coached basketball for decades.  This Bronx Community College alumnus was instrumental in founding the Butterfly Project with a student researcher at Fordham University and many others.  The project has seen many plantings of butterfly friendly plants and habitats in community gardens throughout the Bronx as well as a substantial and extensive indoor and outdoor Butterfly exhibit at the zoo (rebuilt in 2004).  Vasser’s impact on regional pollinator-friendly gardening exceeds beyond the Bronx thanks to his leadership role in the Butterfly Project Pollinator Curriculum Guide, published by the Open Space.  

          Chuck lives in the Soundview neighborhood where he raised his daughter and son.  Read his Community Green blog to step into his wonderful green world. 

          This essay was inspired by the Zulu Nation’s fortieth anniversary (1973-2013).  Its founder Afrika Bambaataa developed and continues to promote a theory of Hip Hop in which the fifth of five elements is knowledge.  Knowledge, says Bambaataa, is as important as the better known Bboying, MCing, Graffit, and DJing.

*The word Sankofa comes from the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “go back and get it.”  Many groups of African descent use this word and symbol to describe the journey of drawing strength and wisdom from the past in order to move forward.

James Baldwin, dedicated Citizen and Novelist/Playwright/Cultural Critic provides the guiding philosophy of Bronx River Sankofa:
“History does not refer merely or even principally to the past.
On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, that we are unconsciously controlled by it,
and that history is literally present in everything we do.”


4 thoughts on “Plants and People, remembering the Bronx River’s African-American Heritage

  1. Thanks for such a beautiful walk through time and greenspace in the Bronx. Great job paying homage to those who shaped and transformed the borough. I hope your work inspires many to do more of the same. Cheers!

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