African American Cultural Gardens
The African American Cultural Gardens demonstrates Black people’s commitment to the equitable allocation of public space.
Civil rights activists waged a sixteen-year campaign to establish the African American Cultural Gardens, which embodied a larger fight for access to recreational space.
Cleveland Cultural Gardens
Since 1926, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in Rockefeller Park have showcased the multi-ethnic heritage of the city’s population. They were first dedicated as part of an effort to combat xenophobia and “Americanization”–public and private efforts to rapidly assimilate immigrants by severing their connection to the ways, tradition and heritage of their native lands. The official mission of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens was “promoting ethnic pride and intercultural understanding.” Between 1926 and the early 1940’s a score of European immigrant and ethnic groups established gardens honoring their cultural heritage.
Unfortunately, nonwhites were not considered part of this project for many decades. Most notable was the exclusion of African Americans, who were rapidly growing into the largest single culturally distinct population in the city, with many migrating from the segregated South. In fact, many were moving into the neighborhoods around Rockefeller Park and the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Over time, the absence of African Americans from the Gardens became a stark symbol of the limits placed on the ability of Cleveland’s Black residents to fully engage in civic life. The 16-year struggle to establish an African American Cultural Garden became part of the local Civil Rights and Black Power movements in Cleveland, and the Cleveland Cultural Gardens became a focal point for the contemporaneous debates about the place for African American culture in public spaces.
CAMPAIGN FOR A GARDEN
The effort to include Blacks began in 1961 when city councilman Leo Jackson proposed a “Negro Garden,” choosing a politically strategic parcel of land adjacent to but not within Rockefeller Park with the idea of eventually altering the park boundaries to include it. This plan was thwarted by disagreements involving the chosen site, with a property dispute entering a court battle that was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Certiorari, however, was denied and so the lower court’s decision allowing the City to condemn the property prevailed. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation was not initially supportive of the concept. In May 1962, when the Federation discussed the idea of creating a “special Negro garden,” they dismissed the idea, claiming that “the American Garden is the place for any bust of American Negro cultural expression.” To support this opinion, one member paraphrased an article in Look magazine which read in part: “The Negro is American–he does not follow the customs of his so-called ‘old country,’ America is where his roots are.” Ironically, their conclusion was in direct contradiction to the original and inclusive objectives of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation.
As the court case for Jackson’s chosen site wound its way through the courts, the notion of Black representation in the gardens stalled until 1967 when, working with and under the authority of the Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation, a group of prominent Black professionals who were involved with the Cleveland Chapter of the Tuskegee Alumni Association put in motion a plan to place a statue of Booker T. Washington in the American Colonial Garden. The Cultural Garden Federation approved their project and they quickly raised money for the statue. By 1970, the Booker T. Washington bust had been installed in the American Colonial Garden. However, the politics of the time included much criticism of Booker T. Washington’s more conservative approach to Black Empowerment–and perhaps also to the Tuskegee Alumni Association’s conservative approach, as they appeared to be acquiescing to the Federation’s argument that African-American culture was merely “American” culture, and not distinct. And so, twice during the 1970s unsuccessful attempts were made to destroy the Booker T. Washington statue with dynamite. In both cases Black Power groups were accused. This, along with other well-publicized and racially charge incidents in the Gardens during the mid-1960’s, focused the attention of the broader local public (both Black and non-Black) on the question of African American representation in the Gardens that now lay within predominately African American residential areas of town.
Ironically, it fell to a namesake of Washington’s, a local Black Studies college teacher and political operative named Booker T. Tall, to begin in earnest the project to acquire a separate African American garden space. Tall brought in the local chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, as well as the office of local politician Louis Stokes, and community groups. In 1974 he became the first Black member of the Cultural Garden Federation, and began negotiations with the Federation and City Council for an optimal site for the African American Cultural Garden, beginning with a plot outside of but very close to The Cultural Garden chain. Discussions and negotiations with CGF and City Council took years but finally a city ordinance designating land for an African American garden within the existing Cultural Garden chain was issued in 1977.
The garden dedication took place October 23, 1977. A crowd numbering in the hundreds braved inclement weather for the cutting of a red, black and green ribbon to officially open the African-American garden. County commissioner George Voinovich deliver the keynote speech. Dignitaries from Ghana, Togo, Kenya and Tanzania were also in attendance. Herbert Lyimo the consulate for political affairs from Tanzania, spoke at the ceremony, expressing his hope that “the dedication of this garden will be a bridge to connect the peoples of America with Africa.”
Carl Ewing is a Cleveland native and grew up near the Cultural Gardens. He didn’t visit the site until he became an adult and is one of the individuals responsible for remodeling the African American Cultural Gardens.
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