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Oakland Cemetery’s First Black Director of Horticulture Talks Site’s Complicated Past

Abra Lee opens up about pursuing her passion, and embracing gardening culture on land still marked by its racist history.

Abra Lee, the first Black director of horticulture at Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery, says the city's oldest park offers a glimpse at "the good, the bad, and ugly of this country." (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Somewhere between gardening and a good Black history book is where you’ll find Abra Lee.

Lee, the first Black director of horticulture at Oakland Cemetery, is an ornamental horticulturist by trade. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book Conquer The Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers. Lee’s book and her new gig (she joined Oakland in January) is how, by her unique trade, she can connect with the stories of her ancestors.

“History and gardens was already my purpose, and I had been prepared to lead a public garden,” Lee said. “Oakland was just me being prepared and being in the right place at the right time. 

When Lee joined the staff at Oakland, she knew that meant acknowledging the complicated history and present challenges of Atlanta’s oldest public park. Despite past racial tensions, nationwide efforts to bring down Confederate monuments, vandalism, and general wear and tear, the work is not lost on staffers like Lee.

A racist past

Located less than a mile from Downtown, Oakland Cemetery was first built as the Atlanta Graveyard or City Burial Place in 1850. The initial site was on 6 acres of land, and served as a public burial ground. 

In 1852, two years after its founding, the Atlanta City Council ruled that Black Americans would be buried in segregated plots in an area of the original 6 acres that became known as “Slave Square.” During the Civil War, demand for burial sites to honor Confederate soldiers led the property to grow into a 48-acre park. When the surrounding lots for white citizens became full, the city then moved to exhume the graves of the Black slaves and relocated them to the “colored pauper grounds” in 1877. 

Legal segregation at the cemetery ended almost a century later in 1963. Nearly 13,000 of those graves were restored in 2022, thanks to a $600,000 upgrade that made updates to hardscapes, unique headstones, and family monuments. Restoration also included identifying 800 unmarked graves that were originally identified using natural markers, like wood and shrubbery. 

Notable Black residents who are buried in Oakland Cemetery include Bishop John Wesley Gaines, the founder of Morris Brown College; Carrie Steele Logan, the founder of the Carrie Steele-Pitts Homes, and Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta.

Lee’s day-to-day role involves maintaining the flora on the grounds, and educating guests on the hundreds of gardens first planted by family members and descendants of the Black residents. 

“These are love stories,” Lee said. “We deeply love nature, we deeply love beauty. We look at flora culture as a luxury that everybody should enjoy, just like fresh water and access to food. It is something that is part of your quality of life. That should be available to everyone.”

For locals, not everyone sees Oakland Cemetery and its grounds as something to celebrate.

Since 2019, the 127-year-old Lion of Atlanta statue, a monument to unidentified Confederate soldiers, had been vandalized multiple times. Other monuments and several Confederate graves were also desecrated during the peak of social unrest and corresponding protests in Atlanta after the deaths of Georgia Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in 2020.

The Lion of Atlanta statue was ultimately removed in August 2021 after a unanimous vote from the Atlanta City Council. Lee understands the skepticism from Black residents as it pertains to Oakland.

“It’s part of the story of the South,” Lee said. “ Where in America is there land that is unstained? From racism or complications, it is a challenge that I accept, and I understand and acknowledge that there’s some people that will never want to step foot in there and that’s OK, too.”

‘The people’s garden’ 

Lee was born in Atlanta and raised in Adams Park. She says her ancestral ties to horticulture started an hour south of the city with weekend trips to her mother’s childhood farm in Barnesville. In addition, Lee’s father worked as the director of arts for the city of Atlanta.

After graduating from Auburn University’s school of agriculture, Lee joined the Longwood Gardens Society of Fellows, a global network of public horticulture professionals. Lee landed her first big gig as the landscaping manager for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport from 2007 to 2012. 

During that time, she began experiencing imposter syndrome as a young professional in a leadership role, so she reached out to her mother for advice. The former history teacher told Lee to expand her knowledge of how Black history intersects with ornamental horticulture, dating as far back as Colonial times. “So she knew that there was a long legacy of Black gardeners, horticulturists, landscape architects, and flora culturists that had done this work,” she said. 

Lee says her current role allows her to teach her passions and remind the community that working with soil and planting are rooted in Black American history. The various floral and plant arrangements on the site are as old — and older — than some of the graves.

“It was the formerly enslaved that went back to these plantations after the Civil War and got the cuttings to propagate these plants that we have today,” Lee said. “These heirloom plants are here because Black people went back and were like, ‘You know what? I bet you I’m going to go get my rose, though.’” 

Lee says understanding that history also means not shying away from the horrors of slavery, but she embraces the same escapism her ancestors found cultivating the flora that she is able to utilize and make a living from. Lee also notes that a ton of these heirloom plants are available for the public to see year round at Oakland. 

“I started researching deeply Black garden history as it relates to ornamental horticulture and I started coming across Black people who did the work I did,” Lee said. “My focus deeply became gardens in history.”

Lee says what she learned has become her life’s work and the mission behind her personal brand, Conquer the Soil, where she lends her gardening and history expertise.

Her upcoming book will serve as a remembrance of the Black ancestors who are rooted in the story of American soil.

“This is the people’s garden, for better or for worse, the good, the bad, and ugly of this country,” Lee said. “It is a complicated story, and that’s what Oakland represents.”