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Horticulture Trailblazer & Hampton Roads Hero the Incomparable Asa Sim

Horticulture Trailblazer & Hampton Roads Hero the Incomparable Asa Sims

When it came to understanding how to excel in all things gardening, renowned horticulturist Asa Sims clearly got the memo. In 1908 he arrived in the Tidewater area, a place he would call home for over six decades. Sims aspired to become a painter. Instead, the teenager enrolled in agriculture classes at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now known as Hampton University.)

A position at the university greenhouse would last three decades with Sims rising to the role of General Manager. An additional job he took on in academia, as an Extension educator, allowed Sims to combine his love for plants and community. Driven by an ambition to make people “flower minded and beauty conscious” he traveled through various rural and urban areas in Virginia and North Carolina teaching landscaping, beautification, and floriculture to thousands of plant lovers in the region.

Sims was also the successful owner and operator of ‘Sims Florist,’ a shop located on his 2-acre estate between Phoebus and East Hampton. Known for beautifully decorated arrangements that were featured in commercial and residential spaces, this was not your everyday floral shop! Here Sims housed a nursery where he grew his own plants and cultivated hundreds of flowers. It was a true showcase of his floricultural talents.

Perhaps his most extraordinary contribution came at the height of the Jim Crow era when Sims forever sealed his horticulture legacy as founding father and state adviser to the ‘Negro Garden Club of Virginia.’ Led by Black women, what started as seven garden clubs in 1932, had decades later become a movement! Thousands of clubs sprang up in all states of the Southeast and across the nation from sea to shining sea. Sims was their biggest champion.

An absolute legend of the Hampton Roads community, may we give him all the flowers in Black History month and beyond. Here’s to forever celebrating the legacy of the incomparable Asa Sims!

Thank you again, Abra! To learn more about Abra, and other stories of African Americans in horticulture, follow her on social media conquerthesoil or visit her website click here.

Abra Lee Bio
Abra Lee is a national speaker, writer, and owner of Conquer the Soil a platform that combines Black garden history and current events to raise awareness of horticulture. She has spent a whole lotta time in the dirt as a municipal arborist, extension agent, airport landscape manager, and more. Lee is a graduate of Auburn University and alumna of the Longwood Gardens Society of Fellows, a global network of public horticulture professionals.

Celebrating Black History Month, Norfolk Botanical Gardens

Celebrating Black History Month, Norfolk Botanical Gardens

To celebrate Black History Month, we are highlighting some of the many contributions of African-Americans to the horticultural industry. Today we share a story especially important to the Hampton Roads community, the story behind the WPA Memorial Garden located in the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

Content from Norfolk Botanical Garden

The idea for the eventual Norfolk Botanical Garden came from City Manager, Thomas P. Thompson. Because the climate of Norfolk was uniquely suited to azaleas he believed a garden could be created to rival those of Charleston, S.C., which even during the depression drew tourists to their city. On June 30, 1938, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) awarded a grant of $76,278 to begin the project. It began as Azalea Gardens. Since most of the male labor force was at work with other city projects; a group of 200 African American women and 20 African American men received the assignment.

Laboring from dawn until dusk, the workers cleared dense vegetation and carried the equivalent of 150 truckloads of dirt by hand to build a levee for the surrounding lake. For a period of four years, the 220 original workers continued the back-breaking task of clearing trees, pulling roots and removing stumps. They worked in harsh conditions, long hours during all four seasons, regardless of the blistering heat, humidity, rain, finger-numbing cold, snow or frigid temperatures. They battled snakes, mosquitoes, ticks, and poison ivy. In less than a year, a section of the trees, briers, vines and underbrush had been cleared and readied for planting, using only pickaxes, hoes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. By March 1939, the work had progressed so that 4,000 azaleas, 2,000 rhododendrons, several thousand camellias, other shrubs and 100 bushels of daffodils had been planted. The men and women turned overgrown, swampy acres into a garden that stylistically expressed the national trend of landscape architecture during the late 1930’s. Neither the work nor the pay was great, but it was a means of putting food on the table, which would not have been possible otherwise.

To watch and learn more about the WPA Memorial Garden click here.

We'd like to thank Norfolk Botanical Garden for the information, photo and video.

To help maintain the WPA Memorial Garden, please consider donating to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

June of 1870, the Flower Farmers in D.C.

Celebrate Black History Month, The Flower Farmers in D.C.

As we celebrate black history month, we'd like to highlight the achievements of black men and women in horticulture. We'd like to thank Abra Lee with @conquerthesoil for this image and story from June of 1870, which features the Flower Farmers in D.C.

Flower sellers, sometimes called peddlers or vendors, grew flowers on their rural land and brought them into cities like D.C., Richmond, and, to this day, Charleston. The ladies’ appearance marked the arrival of spring in Washington, D.C. long before the famed cherry blossoms. (Speaking of which, a special shout out to Roland Jefferson, African-American horticulturist recognized for saving said cherry blossoms. To learn more click here.

Thank you again, Abra! To learn more about Abra, and other stories of African Americans in horticulture, follow her on social media conquerthesoil.

Abra Lee Bio
Abra Lee is a national speaker, writer, and owner of Conquer the Soil a platform that combines Black garden history and current events to raise awareness of horticulture. She has spent a whole lotta time in the dirt as a municipal arborist, extension agent, airport landscape manager, and more. Lee is a graduate of Auburn University and alumna of the Longwood Gardens Society of Fellows, a global network of public horticulture professionals.

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