AJ Foster Jr., president of the Ashburton Area Association, calls the gardens in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood jewels.
Lush with grass, colorful flower beds and small fountains, the gardens have become gathering spots. It’s not uncommon to see neighbors moseying down the street during the summer with a bottle of wine or dish of food to sit in each other’s gardens, he said.
The neighborhood with its tree-lined streets, gardens and sizable, single family homes gives off a suburban feel in the city, Foster added. Planting and maintaining the greenery of the neighborhood is a top priority.
The gardens of Ashburton and neighboring communities have a rich history that can be traced back to the city’s integration period, when neighborhoods were transitioning racially and falsehoods about African Americans and unkempt properties abounded.
It was during this time, more than 60 years ago, that the For-Win-Ash African American garden club started with a mission of beautifying neighborhoods through gardening, landscaping and teaching.
Through events and collaborations, current residents and garden club members are keeping that legacy of gardening alive even today. Ashburton recently held a self-guided garden tour so people could explore the neighborhood and the different gardens.
“We are big on maintaining our history and the opportunity to carry on For-Win-Ash is something that we value,” Foster said.
For-Win-Ash was created in 1959 by Dr. Ivan Bradshaw Higgins, an Ashburton resident, who wanted to maintain the beauty of the area along with residents in the Forest Park and Windsor Hills neighborhoods, hence the garden club’s name. Many Black professionals were moving into these neighborhoods in the decades following World War II. In a swath of Northwest Baltimore, including the three neighborhoods, the Black population increased from 0.2% in 1950 to 86.5% in 1970. The demographic shifts came with false assumptions and worries that African American residents would not take care of their homes and result in the depreciation of property values.
“They thought it was going to be a slum. At least that was my understanding,” said Karin Marie Kendrick, a legacy member of For-Win-Ash whose mother was a founding member. Kendrick added that with the garden club founding members made sure their properties kept their value. She still lives in the house her parents bought in 1958 on Callaway Avenue where she maintains a garden of azaleas, daffodils, tulips, irises, and numerous trees and shrubs.
The For-Win-Ash garden club represented themselves at the Baltimore City Fair in 1970 with a “beautifying Baltimore is our pleasure” tagline. In addition to selling floral arrangements, floral bulbs and cut flowers, Kendrick’s mother took photos of the houses in the neighborhoods to display how residents were maintaining their properties.
Some garden clubs used the act of gardening, forming the clubs and beautification as a bridge to repair racial tensions in their community, said Abra Lee, founder of Conquer the Soil, which explores the history, folklore and art of horticulture.
“That was very real because even when people wouldn’t necessarily get on the same page in terms of voting for equality for Black people, they will certainly share plants with them,” she said.
But there’s also self-expression in gardening, she added, just like with hair, nails and music in Black culture. And, there’s no refuting the irrevocable link between African Americans and agriculture, Lee said.
“We were brought here in bondage because of our agricultural gifts. So it’s not shocking that that connection, it just can’t be taken from us,” Lee said.
On the Ashburton garden tour, a small, mossy stone garden wall at the entrance of one yard, led to pink and red roses. In another backyard, purple wisteria hung over the side of a garage next to zebra grass and a white bicycle.
“Maintaining the historic charm of our neighborhood is one of our priorities so we like to marry that with gardening and landscaping so it creates a warm environment in the community,” Foster said, adding that the Ashburton neighborhood is a city-designated historic district. Windsor Hills is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Marsha Hairston, a For-Win-Ash member and Windsor Hills resident, said overall the garden club is staying active though they’re still bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic. They recently planted marigolds near Cahill Recreation Center, have youth programming, planted trees with residents on Callaway Avenue and are lifetime members of Cylburn Arboretum where they tend to a garden named after For-Win-Ash’s first president, Naomi Camper.
The garden club has changed over the years and members don’t necessarily have to live in the city anymore.
Rose McNeill, the current president of For-Win-Ash, said the club currently has a little over 20 members, but many of them are at least 70 years old. McNeill hopes to make the garden club more visible and recruit new, younger members who are interested in sustaining the group.
“What we need to do is to keep it going because sometimes when you don’t keep your history going, it’s like it never existed,” McNeill said.
Kendra Abaidoo, an Ashburton resident, said she remembers being one of the younger members when she first joined For-Win-Ash. She said she was intrigued by the rich history and common interests that the members shared. One member at the time, she added, was a Tuskegee airman.
“Ashburton has had a rich history in terms of gardening and people making a point to beautify homes and taking a lot of pride in their homes. We continue in the example of the elders and I’m excited to keep doing that,” Abaidoo said.