Project: Essay by Caroline Kealoha

Before coming to Duke, my definition of a garden came from one thing: my family. My mom always kept tomatoes growing on our back porch as well as other ornamental and decorative flowers that lined the perimeter of the house. As a kid, having the time to hangout with your friends being contingent on whether or not you watered all twenty tomato plants really puts a damper on your love for growing food (especially when you despise raw tomatoes). But that did not impede my love for the other food plants that my mom grew and the flowers that she kept perfectly pruned. Beyond this, however, any notion of gardening was reserved for the backyard gardener, who planted various vegetables after the cold weather wore off in the late spring and harvested the last crop come autumn. It was not until more recently that my mom’s lessons sunk in and I realized the value in keeping a garden. Now a garden to me is a point of liberation and a point of great pride. Being able to connect with a place and manifest what it means to reap what I sow is something that I no longer take for granted. The garden allows for the user to free themselves from the normal food systems model and take control over a part of his or her life that is so often removed from the industrious, fast-paced, technology-accelerated world. Understanding what it means to garden in a place like Durham, where black people have historically taken great pride in their flora function and aesthetic, and how these gardens cope with gentrification is why I am so interested in the bigger picture of this environmental justice issue. 

Before I set foot on Duke’s campus, my family-in law members from Raleigh were quick to warn me of the “dangers” of Durham. I was told not to venture downtown, yet their outdated ideas of Durham (stemming from avoiding this city for the past 20 years) dismissed today’s downtown. A quick walk into the city center shows destruction of old property making way for luxury apartment complexes. Personally, with my experiences living near resort communities in Hawai’i, most land developers have little interest in the sentimental and environmental qualities of the land compared to those who commit long hours to the soil. People who work the land literally lose their freedom as business interests encroach, taking away livelihood and connection to place. I am interested in finding out the role of the Durham gardener as not only a steward of the land but as a steward of the history. 

Moreover, from class so far, we have seen firsthand the negative effects of urban development in Durham at the Pauli Murray house. According to Pauli Murray in her book, Proud Shoes, her father took great pride in his land and his garden plot, yet the neighboring wealthy white cemetery proved to be more important in the eyes of the city. A short walk across Durham’s socioeconomically and racially divisive West Chapel Hill Street leads to the Duke Gardens, situated comfortably within Duke’s campus walls. These gardens reflect an aesthetic that draws in visitors to bring awareness about biodiversity and initiate love for the flora. Though the blossoms and leaves are enough to enchant, the land on which the garden lies tells a different tale of the grim history of the slave-era South. Our tour guide told us an interesting factoid that most of the pine trees that the garden staff has examined show that the trees date back to 1868. Contextually, this “age” of the tree tells us today that the roots of each pine only sprouted once there were no longer slaves working the land come the end of the Civil War. At two opposite ends of the spectrum, it seems that there is no connective tissue to tie together the Pauli Murray house and the Duke Gardens. Nonetheless, these two places tell different versions of Durham’s history and how Durham’s people have historically connected to a place, each divided along race and socioeconomic status. I hope to understand throughout the course of this project if gardens are liberating for all the types of Durhamites.