Black Voices & Green Thumbs: Columbus Urban Farms Spark Community in Black Neighborhoods

Julialynne Walker and others are encouraging the Black community to reconnect with the soil.

Donna Marbury
Julialynne Walker at the Bethany Bronzeville Community Garden

“Enjoying our own fruit, we let the juice run down our chins, leaving a trail of tiny seeds to harvest on hungry days like these.”

Julialynne Walker, a tireless advocate and activist for food access and community gardening in Columbus for decades, is reading these words from Frank X Walker’s poem “Homeopathic.” It’s June 17, and she’s speaking at the dedication ceremony of a new community garden bearing her name.

“The gardens that I work with and the people that I work with are like those little seeds that trail down our chin when you bite into a ripe tomato,” Walker says in her remarks. “What we are all doing is capturing the gardens that we knew as youths, and the gardens that our grandparents’ parents knew in their youth. Those gardens sustained us.”

The Julialynne Walker Gateway Learning Garden is a collection of boxed gardens and planters decorated by area artists and children, located at the steps of the King Arts Complex on the Near East Side of Columbus. The garden represents a moment and space where Walker receives her flowers—she’s traveled the world honing the art and science of fostering community through sowing and harvest.

“Over the last 10 years at PACT, I’ve had the great fortune of seeing Ms. Walker walking around the community, always with some vegetables in her bag and a smile on her face. This garden and all of the gardens in this community are watered by her service,” says Autumn Glover, president of Partners Achieving Community Transformation.

The dedication ceremony kicked off Juneteenth, the celebration of the day when the last enslaved people in America were freed—more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. As Black people in America were liberated from forced labor in the fields, they slowly walked away from their own gardening and farming traditions because of a mix of political, emotional and societal factors.

“I’ve had people, men for the most part, come by the garden and say, ‘You are working too hard. That’s some slave labor stuff. You shouldn’t be doing that.’ And these days I’m like, ‘Well, what should we be doing? Always just going to the store?’” Walker says.

There’s an overarching trauma between Black people and the soil, partly due to the horrors of slavery leaving emotional wounds on generations who view toiling the earth as demeaning work.

Even so, many African American baby boomers grew up in communities where everyone had a garden in their backyard, regularly sharing tomatoes, beans and various greens with neighbors.

“For others, they’ve never once put their hands in dirt, but they feel somehow that we, as a people, should not have to do this anymore. And that’s very sad because everybody, regardless of who they are, should be involved in growing, because that’s just essential to our lives,” Walker says.

When it comes to farming in America, though Black people cultivated the land with wisdom and techniques from Africa for centuries, they are sharply underrepresented in land ownership and farming today. Through the 20th century, racist government policies made it nearly impossible to farm while Black in America. In the 1920s, 14 percent of U.S. farmers were African Americans. Now, less than 2 percent of farmers are Black, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Poor communities that lack access to fresh food have been at the mercy of big box grocers for far too long, Walker says. After decades of advocating for affordable and accessible food options, Walker is now cultivating a community that can harvest its own, healthier options.

“I want healthy living for my community through our own efforts,” Walker says. “When there’s a process of disinvestment and a failure to provide the services that … any community needs to thrive, then you can’t help but believe that it’s deliberate. It becomes a self-perpetuating nightmare,” Walker says.

Lienda Hart, left, and Adrienne Williams talk at Hildreth Community Garden.

Sowing the Community

Walker first connected to the soil through her family. Growing up, there was a backyard garden with a range of fruits and vegetables that the family shared with the community, ate right away or canned for the winter. Her mother’s side of the family lived nearby in Bronzeville and had a small garden, fruit trees and vegetables in their backyard near Mount Vernon Avenue. Her father’s family had an extensive backyard garden in Cleveland with a chicken coop, and Walker remembers being assigned tasks to help with meal preparation.

“There was a very clear relationship between whatever you put in the earth [and] what you got to eat sometime in the future,” Walker says.

In college, Walker made her first trip to Africa. At the University of Ghana she learned to respect the complex balance between the community, the soil and how the wind, water and work contributed to its growth or demise.

“When I looked at the area, it just looked like a jumble of plants. Where’s the farm?” Walker remembers thinking when she stepped into West African agriculture for the first time. “Not understanding that there are some very clear lessons that had come from hundreds of years of experience that were being put into practice. It was an incredible design.”

Led by Walker, the Bronzeville Growers Market is entering its fourth year at the Maroon Arts Group MPACC Box Park. She also launched the Bronzeville Agricademy in 2019, a free, 10-week class that details techniques and tactics for successful urban gardening. She is also president of the Franklin Park Civic Association and has set a goal to elevate the community gardens on both sides of Broad Street. She, along with a growing group of volunteers, is developing five new Bronzeville-area community gardens.

As the community changes, with once-vacant lots and houses being sold in the healthy six-figure range, Walker says the fight to maintain the area’s community gardens has a renewed purpose. She often wields her law degree from Northwestern University to combat complaints from the area’s new residents, some of whom view the gardens as a nuisance.

“People might look at me and say, ‘She’s a little old lady out here in the garden.’ You think that, but I have 50 years of management experience behind me. I might talk flowers or whatever, but when it comes time for action, I’m going to move on it. That’s what I’ve been about,” Walker says.

Cultivating New Spaces

In Ohio, fewer than 200 of more than 77,000 farms are Black-owned, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And for decades, Black farmers have fought discriminatory practices and civil rights violations.

In 1999, the USDA settled a class action suit filed by Black farmers alleging discriminatory lending practices for $1.03 billion. Black farmers received loan forgiveness and $50,000 per farmer cash awards. More recently, Black farmers received 0.1 percent of coronavirus relief money from the Trump administration, about $20 million of a $26 billion package, according to a Washington Post analysis.

The new lens on the socio-political and economic disparities of 2020 is giving Black farming and gardening advocates a renewed voice. President Biden’s 2021 coronavirus relief plan includes $4 billion specifically to farmers of color, along with $1 billion in other assistance.

Yolanda Owens in the new community garden in Pickerington

“I don’t think that it could have been at a better time for me to actually make real change and to create spaces for people who look like me,” says Yolanda Owens, the first Black and Latinx president of the Ohio State University College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Alumni Society Board. With more than a decade of experience in public health and food access, Owens is the founder of Forage + Black, a garden consulting agency and apparel line. As a millennial and woman of color in a space dominated by older white men, Owens says that she uses her position to advocate for diversity and inclusion in all areas of agriculture.

“At this moment in time, the world is shifting and has forced people to take a better listen,” Owens says. “There are some folks who have had their eyes opened. They’ve never had to care about trying to find ways to engage with Black, Indigenous or Latinx farmers or growers because they had enough populations of white farmers and growers. They were okay with that.”

Leveraging her position with Ohio State, Owens says she is a part of more conversations with local, regional and national organizations that are now interested in creating more inclusive spaces for farmers of color.

“If we want to create change, opportunities or points of access in our communities, we need to first connect with the community instead of prescribing or putting programs there. That’s a piece that is very much missing,” Owens says. “There are folks who have plenty of money and they care about food access, so let’s bring them to the table.”

She is also working alongside neighbors and advocates on the development of (and education around) community gardens in Pickerington, a suburb with a nearly 19 percent Black population. They’ve secured a 10-acre plot amid the area’s new developments and office buildings. “We have the space to put a full community garden, one that’s really open,” Owens says.

Doing the Work

Kwodwo Ababio owned and operated the New Harvest Café in Linden for 15 years, a farm-to-table soul food restaurant with fruits and vegetables sourced from a community garden next door to the building. In 2019, Ababio sold the restaurant to the city-funded Columbus Next Generation Corp. Maintaining a community garden and fresh food restaurant in Linden amid the community’s struggles had started to weigh on Ababio.

“Nobody really comes up to help me in the garden. They come out for the harvest, to take stuff, but they don’t give anything back,” Ababio says. “I got tired of just growing and people taking. But at the same time, I understand people are hungry.”

He is currently on the board of Franklinton Farms, a nonprofit that operates 13 community gardens in the Franklinton community, which suffers from the same social and health disparities as Linden. Franklinton Farms gives away one-third of its harvest for free, and funds raised from the sale of the remaining produce are seeded back into the farms and the community. The organization also gives discounts to those receiving SNAP/EBT benefits. Ababio says that though he still maintains the community garden in Linden, he wanted to be a part of a larger group in the community that was doing the work to help underserved populations.

A gardener harvests produce at Hildreth Community Garden.

“I wanted to cross the barrier and collaborate with folks who were doing the work. I don’t care what color you are, because poverty and food access are black and white,” Ababio says. “There needs to be a modified understanding of growing food in urban areas. We have tons of vacant lots that we can really take advantage of. It’s better than abandoned, vacant lots blowing dust all over the place.”

Ababio grew up in Chicago and remembers the “manure man” who would come through the neighborhood, dropping off stacks of smelly fertilizer for the community members’ backyard gardens. As a child, visits to the Garfield Park Conservatory nurtured his interest in flowers, nature and beauty.

“In Chicago, I saw people who had big and beautiful tomatoes and collard greens in their backyards. And then at the end of the year, we would always have block parties,” Ababio says. He also recalls visiting his relatives in Mississippi and unearthing the sacred connection between growing food and sustaining life.

“I had a chance to put my hand in soil and connect with the soil,” Ababio says. “Fresh watermelon, right out the field—there’s no flavor like it. Tomatoes, collard greens, mustard greens and carrots, fields and fields of cabbage. The first time I understood where potatoes came from is when we dug them up.”

Looking forward, Ababio is seeking a farm in the Columbus area to serve as a bed-and-breakfast for community activists, to provide a reconnection to nature and healthy food.

“It’s important that when you’re growing food or as a farmer, you’re also involved in social justice, because the big picture is, for those people who have been deprived, you can provide some kind of justice,” Ababio says.

A New Generation in the Soil

When Jera Oliver became director of development for the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State, the lack of diversity was a stark difference from what she knew about farming. Her father was originally from Alabama and moved to Columbus during the Great Migration. Throughout her life, Oliver says she grew up around family and in neighborhoods where everyone had backyard gardens.

Jera Oliver, left, and Adrienne Williams, founders of Growing & Growth Collective, at Greenway Community Garden

When she learned that there are only two Black people in the Ohio Agricultural Council Hall of Fame, Reuben Jones and his son, Lewis Jones, Oliver knew there was a disconnect between people of color and Ohio’s farming resources.

“I didn’t see us represented in a space where we’ve had a history of being represented, and it doesn’t make sense. It started percolating in me to want to do something,” Oliver says.

Oliver connected with Adrienne Williams, a high school friend who completed the OSU Extension Center’s Ohio Master Urban Farmer Workshop series. In 2020, the pair launched Growing and Growth Collective, which promotes conversations about food justice and uses social media to engage with younger Black, Indigenous and people of color in Columbus’ community gardens.

Growing & Growth Collective is also working closely with Walker, PACT and other community organizations to raise money that will support five community gardens on the Near East Side with programming that includes book chats, garden meetups and lectures. One example is a recent virtual event about houseplants and veganism with Columbus Urban League Young Professionals and Plant the Power, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based lifestyles.

“In the community farm space, the people tended to skew older and there were not a lot of Black folks. There’s that middle ground of young professionals, and I wasn’t seeing a lot of that. And even when I saw people in their 20s and 30s … they were white,” Williams says.

In May, Oliver testified to Columbus City Council on an update to the zoning code that would allow for small-scale growers to sell their own produce. The code, passed in June, is an update to the 2016 Columbus and Franklin County Local Food Action Plan and 2017 Green Business and Urban Agriculture Strategic Plan, which both aim to enable, support and grow a stronger and more efficient local food system.

As Williams and Oliver joined Walker during the Juneteenth garden dedication, Walker spoke about how people of color can reclaim the health, profits and peace that gardening provides.

“We have to make sure that these gardens don’t pass from our memory as others have,” Walker says.

This story is from the August 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.