By Patrice Hamiter, African American History Archivist, and Dr. Katrena Kennedy
The development of the African American Cultural Garden is a project that has been 60 years in the making.
From the beginning, the Gardens, which set out to honor and celebrate the diverse ethnic communities of Cleveland, fell short when they reflected only those groups who were of European culture and heritage; excluding any non-European immigrant and migrant representations.
But time passed, and the 1960s came in with the Civil Rights movement on an upswing, and the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation (CCGF) had its first ever conversation about race in 1961. They momentarily questioned the representation of African American history and culture within the Gardens; a “Negro Garden” was the phrasing, but after a brief consideration the CCGF decided against it.
Their decision was mainly based on a magazine article that claimed that Negroes no longer followed the customs of Africa; and that America is where the Negroes’ roots were. So the consensus was that any cultural expressions related to African Americans’ should be placed within the American Garden.
Not long after, African American Councilman Leo Jackson proposed a Negro garden. Later that year he won a 25-7 roll call vote to have the city purchase property at 931 East Blvd; a site adjacent to the existing cultural gardens, but not contiguous to it. But even with Mayor Anthony Celebrezze’s support, the measure was eventually blocked by the Finance committee in 1963. After which, the idea faded from public consciousness and several years went by without a resolution.
Then in 1969, Booker T. Tall, a Cuyahoga Community College professor who was also an active member of the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Black History Archives Project (now the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society), began what turned out to be an eight-year long labor of love to claim a spot for the African American Cultural Garden.
The African American Cultural Gardens Federation, which was started in 1971, was also a part of the journey. Members included Clarence Fitch, Carol Bugg, Bob Render, Glen Brackens, and the local chapter of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life & History.
Initially, committee members had problems trying to join the all-white Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation. The CCGF required that all members already have a cultural garden before joining, but the only way to actually obtain a garden was to have the federation’s approval. In time this requirement was waived and Booker Tall became the first black member of the CCGF in 1974.
The group diligently worked to gain support to bring an African American Cultural garden to the Cleveland Cultural Garden grounds. They had planned to accomplish this by way of a media campaign throughout the city of Cleveland. However, they faced some opposition in 1976 by way of councilwoman Mildred Madison. Councilwoman Madison, whose home was across the street from the proposed garden site, blocked the vote to sanction the location because she complained it would drive down property values, and increase traffic and potential vandalism. But the committee continued its efforts and eventually found a site within the contiguous gardens.
As a result of the campaign, on October 23, 1977, the African American Cultural Garden (at that time it was called the Afro-American Cultural Garden) was dedicated by then County Commissioner George Voinovich. He along with Kenneth Johnson cut the red, black and green ribbon, opening up the garden. Mayor Ralph Perk was also in attendance along with over 200 supporters. The location of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at the St. Clair exit is where Tall stood and declared the four-acre area the future site of the African American Cultural Garden.
It was proposed at the time of dedication that six notable African Americans with Cleveland ties would be honored by markers. They were Richard Allen, who was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Garrett A. Morgan, traffic light inventor and businessman; Jesse Owens, Gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics; John P. Green, Ohio legislator who introduced the bill to make Labor Day a holiday in Ohio; Langston Hughes, a playwright, poet, and novelist who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance; and Jane Edna Hunter, who established the Phillis Wheatley Association.
But unfortunately, this version of the garden never came to pass. After Booker Tall passed away in 1994, and for several years after, the construction of the African American Cultural Garden lay mostly untouched.
Then in 2000, the late Mrs. Cordell Edge, who was a longtime Glenville resident, was appointed to engage a committee to cultivate and develop the African American Cultural Garden. Mrs. Edge formed the African American Cultural Garden Community Support Group. But her interest and involvement with the African American Cultural Gardens began in 1998 when she became a friend of the Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation, and eventually a delegate to advocate for the African American Cultural Garden. Due to Mrs. Edge’s work, interest and support for the garden gained momentum.
The garden has also received support from two Cleveland mayors who have been instrumental in moving this effort forward. During his time in office former Mayor Michael White (1990-2002) committed about $250,000 in funding for research and design costs. And in 2012 the Association of African American Cultural Gardens (AAACG) became a non-profit organization, electing Carl S. Ewing as its president, who worked with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson who organized a task force and secured over $500,000 to develop and implement a plan for the garden.
Prior designs for the garden were proposed by both architects Robert P. Madison, and Jim McKnight, but the current design is by local architect Daniel Bickerstaff II, of Ubiquitous Design, LTD. He was commissioned to design the African American Cultural Garden, and according to the AAACG website, it will be designed as the “Past, Present, and Future Pavilions”.
With ground being broken in 2016, the first major installation of the three-phase design of the African American Cultural Garden was completed; the “Past Pavilion”. The concept of the Past Pavilion is to translate the experience of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It represents the corridors and dungeons in the slave castles along the western coast of Africa.
The Past Pavilion also includes an Infinity Fountain that depicts the illusion of the tranquility of the Atlantic Ocean as seen through the Pavilion’s “Doorway of No Return”. The “Doorway” is a sandstone structure that portrays the notion of unknown transition. The Middle Passage of the Pavilion alludes to the sense of going down into the bowels of the slave ships.
With the first phase now complete, the journey that started 60 years ago is ongoing. Currently, AAACG is continuing its fundraising efforts to secure funds needed to complete Phases Two and Three of the African American Cultural Garden.
If you’d like to learn more about the African-American Cultural Garden, please visit https://www.clevelandculturalgardens.org/gardens/african-american-garden/ and http://aaacg.org/. And to learn more about the garden’s design, this video of architect Daniel Bickerstaff explains more about his concept at the 2016 Juneteenth celebration and ribbon-ceremony in the African American Cultural Garden https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZtX798LvU4.