Speaker Profile: Abra Lee
We're thrilled to introduce Abra Lee of Conquer the Soil - enjoy this highly personal conversation from our contributor Myriah Towner
Abra Lee is an Atlanta-based horticulturist, author and speaker. Abra’s career milestones include serving as the Arborist for the City of Atlanta and the Parks Department; managing the landscapes for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston; and serving as a Horticulture Fellow in the Longwood Gardens Leadership Program in Pennsylvania—to name a few. Her career now focuses on researching and writing about Black American garden history for Conquerthesoil.com, and she is presently under contract with Timber Press for her first book on the history of Black Americans in Horticulture.
Abra is a horticulturist by trade, but farming and gardening runs through her blood. Her father served as the Director of Parks for the City of Atlanta and her mother grew up on their family’s farm in Barnesville, Georgia. Her family in many ways has inspired her journey into horticulture. “[Growing up in a farming family] influenced where I am now because I have this deep appreciation and respect for rural gardeners in rural agriculture. And I have to always own that. I learned how to garden in school, and that’s a very big difference than my mama, and my uncles, and great aunts, and cousins who grew up on a farm. They're the ones that I really, really learned from,” says Abra.
"I have this deep appreciation and respect for rural gardeners in rural agriculture."
Raised in Southwest Atlanta, Abra was surrounded by green thumbs in her own family, but never fully imagined that a career in gardening would be in her future. “There's this false narrative that, ‘Oh, so many Black people didn't want to go back into agricultural horticulture because of slavery.’ And that's just simply not true if you look at my story. My parents didn't hesitate when I wanted to major in that. [My dad] understood the curriculum I was following. And my mom grew up on a family farm that owns their land. They were very supportive.”
Read Abra's story on Conquer the Soil: "The Original Flower Farmers"
As a creative, Abra’s love for gardening is also tied deeply to her love of fashion. Inspired by the women in her family who wore stylish outfits while gardening, she has been working on her own line which she hopes to launch one day in the future. “I literally have the samples hanging in my closet,” says Abra. “The designs were kind of like an homage to my aunts and great aunts in Barnesville. Some of them were an homage to women who had mentored me in horticulture. And, so, I named every style after one of those women.” She adds: “I am representing my dirt road country, Georgia clay roots.”
In her work, Abra’s creative influences range from the Black women in her life to extracting everything she sees, hears and reads, and applying it to horticulture. One person who has had the biggest impact on Abra and her career is her cousin, Monique. Monique in many ways encouraged Abra at a pivotal moment in her life while studying Horticulture at Auburn University College of Agriculture. Monique influenced Abra to show up in the world as her true, authentic self. “[Monique's] my first cousin, my favorite cousin. She grew up off of Camp Creek running the streets, and she just always had the cool hair and cool nails. She was just so cool. And I just remember thinking, well, I'm over here trying to assimilate and be more like my classmates and the assimilation part didn't work,” says Abra. “The sooner I owned my Atlanta bougie mixed with my Barnesville country, it was like it shifted my whole career because it shifted my confidence going in the room. I knew that I could be myself, I knew I had the knowledge, and I knew I didn't have to show up trying to be this person I wasn't. It kept making me more and more confident every day.”
That confidence of being in her skin is evidenced in Abra’s Conquer the Soil platform where she writes, speaks and consults specifically about Black American garden history. The origin and name of her company is rooted in Blackness, Black culture and the words of civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois. “[Conquer the soil are] words from W.E.B Du Bois that he writes in his book, The Soul of Black Folks,” says Abra. He talks about, and I'm paraphrasing, the enslaved Africans’ ability and our three gifts: our gift of story and song and our ability to conquer the soil. And when he said that, ‘I was like, heck yeah, that's going to be the name of the company’ because I felt that, I felt it with my full chest. I knew what he was saying.” Abra continues: “He was talking about how we were such extraordinary people that we were able to come to this land and literally build it for free. Like you took everything from these people. These are descendants of West Africans. You stripped them of their language, their food, their families, their friends, and yet they were here and conquered the soil. I owe it to him to do right by his words. After all, his words are the name of my business.”
If a young person is starting and they just have a little can of Diet Coke that's empty with a flower in it, and that's all they got to garden with, it's like, baby, you can conquer the soil."
Abra hopes these words also inspire the next generation of young African Americans coming into agriculture. “A lot of this goes back to W.E.B Du Bois and Conquer the Soil, and the enslaved Africans' ability to conquer the soil,” says Abra. “It's their birthright. Like this is who we are. This is what we do. We were brought here because we were exceptional cultivators of the soil. So if a young person is starting and they just have a little can of Diet Coke that's empty with a flower in it, and that's all they got to garden with, it's like, baby, you can conquer the soil. This is who you are. Just keep your eyes on the prize and focus and remember who you are and remember why you were brought here: because you were exceptional with your hands in the soil. And that's what I want young people to know. Like you can do this. It's your birthright.”
Slow Flowers welcomes our 2021 Summit contributor Myriah Towner. Myriah is a storyteller and producer. Her work has supported the production of virtual reality storytelling and nonfiction shorts for African/American: Making the Nation's Table - the nation's first major exhibition to celebrate Black farmers, chefs, food and drink producers and their contributions to American cuisine. As director/producer, she is leading a legacy project, Black Farmer Stories, which leverages multimedia storytelling to document and preserve the history, legacy, cultural heritage and agricultural knowledge of Black farmers across the U.S. through storytelling. She has developed and produced podcasts for the Emmett Till Project and the Schomburg-Mellon Humanities Summer Institute series. Her editorial work has been published in Street Fight, The Content Strategist, The Newcastle Chronicle & Journal, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and Mail Online.