By Patrice Hamiter, African American History Archivist
It was in 1969 that Booker Tall, a Cuyahoga Community College professor and one of the founders of the African American Archives at WRHS, began what turned out to be an eight-year long labor of love to claim a spot for the African American Cultural Garden.
Tall wanted the garden to live within the Cleveland Cultural Gardens grounds. The grounds, which are located within the 276 acres of Rockefeller Park, is a collection of public gardens situated along East Boulevard & Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Each of the gardens celebrate a different ethnic group who has contributed to the heritage of Cleveland and of our country.
So, the Association of African American Cultural Gardens, which included Mr. Tall, along with Clarence Fitch, Carol Bugg, Bob Render, Glen Brackens, and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life & History set out to bring an African American Cultural garden to the Cleveland Cultural Garden grounds. They planned to accomplish this by way of a media campaign throughout the city of Cleveland.
As a result, on October 23, 1977, the African American Cultural Garden (or the Afro-American Cultural Garden as it was called then) was dedicated to a four-acre site by then-Mayor George Voinovich. The site, located on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at the St. Clair exit, is where Tall stood before a crowd of five-hundred and declared the four-acre area the future site of the African American Cultural Garden.
At the time of the dedication, the Association of African American Cultural Gardens (AAACG) had planned to honor six notable African Americans: Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Garrett Morgan Sr., inventor and founder of the Cleveland Call & Post newspaper; Jesse Owens, the 1936 Olympic gold medalist; John P. Green, an elected official who introduced the bill that made Labor Day a holiday in Ohio; Jane Edna Hunter, who established the Phillis Wheatley Association to assist unmarried black women; and Langston Hughes, a poet and a playwright who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
But unfortunately, this version of the garden never came to pass; soon after the dedication, Booker Tall passed away. Then, not long after that, the AAACG became inactive, interest waned, and the construction of the African American Cultural Garden lay mostly untouched.
Then around 2003, there was renewed interest in completing the garden. It was spearheaded by the late Cordell Edge, who was a longtime Glenville resident. He was appointed to engage a committee to cultivate and develop the African American Cultural Garden.
Due to Mr. Edge’s work, interest in the garden gained momentum, and in 2012, the AAACG secured its non-profit status and elected Carl S. Ewing as its new president. Mr. Ewing worked with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who organized a task force to develop and implement a plan for the garden.
Architect W. Daniel Bickerstaff II, of Ubiquitous Design, LTD., was commissioned to design the African American Cultural Garden, and raise funds to complete the first phase of the three-phase design. According to the AAACG website, The African American Garden will be designed as the Past, Present, and Future Pavilions.
In 2016 ground was broken on the first major installation of the garden, the “Past Pavillion”. 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 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 Past Pavilion alludes to the sense of going down into the bowels of the slave ships.
With the first phase now completed, Booker Tall’s journey that started over 40 years ago is ongoing. Currently, AAACG is continuing its fundraising efforts to secure the $2.6 million dollars needed to complete Phases Two and Three of the garden.
If you’d like to learn more about the African American Cultural Garden, please CLICK HERE. You can also visit http://aaacg.org/. 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.