Stories and Seeds Work to Preserve Each Other: The Heirloom Gardens Oral History Project

March 1, 2024

By Holli Cederholm

Which came first: the story or the seed? Bonnetta Adeeb, founder of the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, says the two are intimately linked. So much so that when the collective, which is focused on supporting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) growers, started to sell seeds as a fundraiser, they gathered stories from seedkeepers in tandem with the seeds. Ujamaa specializes in “culturally meaningful” seeds, many of which are not readily available through the white-dominated seed industry in the United States. “Even to this day, if you look at a lot of the top seed companies, they maybe have one variety of okra,” Adeeb offers as an example. Meanwhile, there are more than 200.

Adeeb emphasizes that without stories, we wouldn’t know what seeds are culturally significant. Ujamaa took root during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she and others observed an intergenerational loss taking place — people were dying and taking not only their own lived gardening experiences with them, but also the wisdom they inherited from their ancestors. “We’d lost whole libraries of people that were the knowledge- and the culture-bearers,” says Adeeb. Several grandmothers started meeting over Zoom and in gardens to bring the elders in their communities together around raising food as a means of survival — on both an individual and a collective level. With COVID spreading like wildfire, people were afraid to leave their homes; as a result, Adeeb laments, they were suffering from a lack of sunshine, exercise and healthy food, and a loss of connection to each other and the earth.

In getting together, they talked about the foods they ate and the seeds they kept. They talked about turnip and mustard greens, watermelon and peas. Adeeb asked her fellow elders questions like: “What was the favorite food? You know, what was on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner?” These conversations offered the authority with which Ujamaa could identify a specific variety as culturally important. They also shined a spotlight on the significance of the stories themselves: without them, whole traditions could be lost forever — from growing practices to recipes to rituals.

Heirloom Gardens Oral History Project
The Heirloom Gardens Oral History Project is a collaborative between Ujamaa, Princeton University and Spelman College. Photo courtesy of Tessa L. Desmond

Ultimately, out of these conversations, The Heirloom Gardens Oral History Project was born. A collaborative between Ujamaa, Princeton University and Spelman College, the grant-funded project kicked off in 2023 with a goal of recording 250 oral histories of people, including farmers, gardeners, chefs and local historians, who have worked to preserve Black and Indigenous seed and foodways through the Southeastern United States and Appalachia.

There is a longstanding history of small-scale farming and gardening in more rural Black and Indigenous communities in this region. “They’ve just been saving seed and collecting seed over generations and generations,” says Hanna Garth, an assistant professor of anthropology at Princeton. “And they know the stories of where their seeds came from.” This could be a great grandfather’s neighbor who spent his lifetime working to adapt a variety to grow well in Georgia’s climate, or seeds that headed north to Philadelphia during the Great Migration, or seeds cultivated since the enslavement periods by generations of descendants of West and Central Africans in the Gullah Geechee Corridor. A projected two-thirds of the seed interviews will be from people of color.

As a framework, oral history privileges marginalized voices and lends itself to the documentation of the “story” in history. Those interviewed, called “narrators,” guide the stories, and they usually retain the rights to the resulting narratives, as is the case in this project.

Heirloom Gardens field recording
Bonnetta Adeeb and Tessa Lowinske Desmond collect an oral history from Levi Grisset, Sr. Photo by Chris Smith

Another unique aspect to oral history is that the collection preserves the actual voices of the storytellers — the cadence of their speech; the rhythm of their dialect; the punctuation provided by a ripple of laughter or an undercurrent of anger; the emotion conveyed by an increase or decrease in volume, or a loss of words. The audio serves to amplify the story in a way that written text simply cannot.

For better or worse, the sounds of a narrator nervously crinkling paper or tapping a table for emphasis during an interview are all captured by what Tessa Lowinske Desmond, a research specialist at Princeton University and Ujamaa founding member, refers to as the project’s “giant mic.” At first, she was a little weary of turning off prospective interviewees with their “fancy” gear, which also includes a headset and a radio-quality recorder, but the crisp sound quality helped to assuage her worries. “We’re really proud of documenting this story,” says Desmond. “We’re going to treat it with the honor it deserves.”

Upon completion in 2024, the archives will be housed at Spelman, in conjunction with the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library, and will be available for listening by the public. The collection will be linked to by other institutions, too, such as Princeton and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Audio excerpts might also end up curated in museum exhibits, perhaps showcasing a specific variety of callaloo or corn, along with instructions on how to grow it. Time will tell.

Last summer, 14 undergraduate students from Spelman and Princeton collected about 60 stories from people in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, as well as in and around Atlanta, Georgia, where Spelman, a historically Black college, is located. Before setting out in the field, the students attended an oral history bootcamp, says Elizabeth Gowans, a student turned Spelman’s Food Studies program assistant. Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, a renowned oral history scholar and professor at Spelman, led the training.

Interview teams composed of students, Princeton and Spelman faculty, and Ujamaa members traveled to homes and community centers, and were invited into kitchens, onto porches, and on garden tours. In these settings, reminiscent of seed work, trust was established. The students enter each 60-to-90-minute oral history interview with a rubric of open-ended questions — such as “Tell me where you’re from” or “How did your family access food” — but these prepared prompts are often shed once the narrator enters a memory. There is a palpable animation to unlocking such a moment, reflects Desmond, and the interviewer is there to witness it — and to save it for the future.

Heirloom Gardens oral history bootcamp
Group photo from Oral History Boot Camp at Spelman College. Photo by Kayla Smith

The narrators were identified through Ujamaa’s existing network — the church ladies know everyone in the community, laughs Adeeb — and a methodology in social science research known as “snowball sampling,” in which researchers ask participants, “Who else should I talk to?”

That’s how the oral history project became aware of Miss May, who has been breeding collards for more than 50 years. “We have to get to Farmville to meet Miss May,” Desmond recalls Adeeb telling her before they visited eastern North Carolina on a research trip last September.

The method by which Miss May plants the collards as an older gardener is as important as learning about the variety that she stewards. As she aged, Miss May was no longer physically able to pull up the plants, collect the seeds and transplant the seedlings for the next generation, so she lay the mature collards in the plot to allow the seeds to drop naturally and establish themselves. “That’s what the plant wants to do. And she’s a partner,” says Adeeb, invoking a relationship between seed, steward and nature that spans hundreds of generations.

There is a healing that takes place in telling seed stories, says Adeeb, whose memories of growing up in the Jim Crow South include the very real fear of the Ku Klux Klan murdering Black people, as well as a sense of independence garnered by her grandparents’ ability to garden and tend livestock. “It’s cathartic to know these things and to know that our people weren’t just ignorant fools,” Adeeb says.

Africans were stolen from their homelands and forced into enslavement for their agricultural knowledge, bringing the seeds, and the skills to grow them, for the crops that became the foundation of U.S. agriculture — including rice and cotton. Similarly, the seeds and traditions of Indigenous people kept the settlers who violently displaced them alive. “Black and Indigenous seed and foodways are American seed and foodways,” says Desmond. “This knowledge is ancient and long-held … since before our founding as a nation.” But, she adds, there is a lot of information that has been lost along the way — through trauma and diaspora.

There are “very, very deep thorns of exploitation,” says project coordinator Christian Brooks Keeve, who is a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Kentucky and a participant in Ujamaa’s History, Culture and Research Working Group. Seed stories, they say, offer an opportunity for “for people to rewrite themselves into the landscape and rewrite themselves into the histories of these lands on their own terms.” By collecting and listening to the stories of Black and Indigenous seedkeepers, we’re reminded of ecological knowledge that was thought to be lost.

While narrators told Gowans and the other student cultural preservationists about bananas and plantains, holy basil and hibiscus, they also recalled agricultural methods that have informed the practices of today’s U.S. farmers — which are not always credited to Black and Indigenous people. Such practices include companion planting for beneficial relationships between plants.

Many narrators also spoke about communing with plants. For Adeeb, that connection is akin to a familial relationship. In fact, “Ujamaa” is a Swahili word that translates to “extended family.” She implores everyone to interview their elders, to find out what seeds, foods and recipes are important to your own family — so that you, too, can hold onto what is culturally meaningful, tending it and serving it at your table, feeding it to your children. She says, if you are what you eat then the food of your ancestors is part of you. “They are who we are, they are part of our DNA.”

Seed stories help us sit with the legacies of not only people but with the legacies of land and food that are fundamental to building political power, says Keeve. The power of seeds, Adeeb echoes, is the most powerful weapon there is, more so than even a bullet or a pen. A seed protects against hunger, against pain and suffering, against ignorance. It protects against erasure.

Preservation is not about placing seeds into jars. The seeds need to be planted in the soil, to grow and pass on genetics to the next generation, and the one after that. Keeve says, “In order to keep these histories, and keep these stories, and keep these seeds, you have to keep growing them out … The keeping of seeds brings the archive alive.”

This article was published in the spring 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, and was originally published in the winter 2023 issue of The Natural Farmer.

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