The Rich History of Black Flower Vendors in New York City - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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The Rich History of Black Flower Vendors in New York City

Abra Lee, writer, speaker, and director of horticulture at the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, has spent the past several years researching Black gardening histories for her forthcoming book Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers.

Lee’s book will explore the contributions, dedication, and artistry of 45 “hidden figures” in horticulture. Part of her research has focused on flower vendors who lived and worked in cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Charleston, and here in New York. 

In celebration of Black History Month, we chatted with Lee about her work and the vibrant legacy of Black flower vendors in Harlem and beyond. 

What drove you to start researching Black horticultural histories?

I was still in my 20s, and I was dealing with impostor syndrome at a job. I was the new landscape manager at Atlanta’s airport.

I was at my mentor’s house with my mom, and I was expressing how I wanted to be good at my job. And my mentor suggested that I learn the history of gardening. I thought that just meant basic garden history, but my mom, who was a history teacher, said, “No, you need to learn your history—the history that you come from in the South. You’re not the first Black person who was a landscape manager at an airport.”

A woman wearing a black blazer, black-rimmed glasses and layered necklaces smiles at the camera.
Horticulturist and writer Abra Lee. Image courtesy of Abra Lee.

She started introducing me to people who had walked the path that I was on. It was exciting to me that there was such a rich history of Black America in ornamental horticulture.

I would share a few of these tidbits when I was out talking about Atlanta’s airport, and people would be more interested in the people I was talking about than my airport landscape spiel. And I thought, Oh, okay, other people care about this, too! So that is what made me really shift gears and become deeply invested in garden history.

What has your process looked like?

I’ve gone through letters, archives, books—and not necessarily a garden book; it might just be a book on the history of a community. And every now and then I’m able to actually talk to a relative.

Word of mouth, I think, has been my best resource. Sometimes I’ll share information at an event, and an elder will come up to me saying, “Oh, when I was a child, in my town, there was this lady that was a rosarian, and her name was this or that.” And then you go look it up at the local historical society, and all of this is true.

As part of your book research, you explored the legacy of Black flower vendors in the U.S., including in the NYC area. Can you share a few of those stories?

Black women in particular have been selling flowers for quite some time in the United States as a means of financial independence. And New York has a rich history of flower vendors in places like Harlem, going back to the late 1800s, even before it was a majority-Black area.

A man named “Boss” Clarence Powers claimed to have been New York’s first flower vendor, though that may have been a tall tale. He started out in the late 1800s. Benjamin F. Butler was another Harlem florist active during the roaring ’20s. He also ran for public office. For people like Butler, floriculture became a path to financial freedom.

These folks were really out there in the city living and building the culture that we all know as New York today. And they were truly knowledgeable. They were part of horticultural societies, they were doing public speaking, they were teaching classes.

Lucille Caines was a notable Harlem florist who become well-known within the community in the 1940s. She was originally from Sparta, Georgia, and moved north during the Great Migration.

A Black woman wearing a tall floral headpiece smiles against a green background.
Harlem florist Lucille Caines. Credit: G. Marshall Wilson / Ebony Magazine.

She married into the flower business and opened her own shop, Lucille’s, and became incredibly successful. She started getting covered in the newspaper, developed a higher profile. She was known for her funeral displays, floral arrangements, wedding bouquets, table and basket arrangements, and corsages.

There’s a beautiful picture of her where she was wearing this hat with 200 orchids in it after winning an award in the Metropolitan Retail Florists Association contest. She was the only Black member to participate in their show in 1949.

What is interesting, in the case of Benjamin Butler and in the case of Lucille Caines, is that they were also involved in what later became the work of civil rights. Caines was donating to the NAACP, and she was speaking up for the Pullman porters, the Black railroad workers who contributed to the Great Migration and formed the first Black labor union.

Even outside of Harlem, you have people like a gentleman named Joel Cooley, who was winning awards in Madison Square Garden for his dahlias starting in 1918. He was a hobbyist, but he was incredible at what he did. And his mother was known to have the greatest flower garden on Staten Island.

What kinds of flowers were people selling?

In Depression-era Harlem, they were selling baby’s breath, begonias, daisies, ferns, gladiolas, lilacs, morning glories, peonies, carnations, orchids, roses. At the time, these flowers were often coming from farms nearby, in places like Staten Island.

They also sold replica blooms, or artificial flowers. Artificial sounds plastic and cheap, but if you see a picture of an old school silk flower, you realize that this was artisanship.

What did the work of selling flowers typically look like?

There were people who were standing with their buckets selling flowers, while other people like Lucille Caines might have had a storefront, and others had flower carts.

A line illustration printed in Harpers Weekly in 1870 depicting 9 Black women selling flowers and tall flowering branches at an outdoor market.
A drawing for a June 1970 issue of Harper's Weekly shows Black flower vendors at a Washington, D.C. market. Credit: Library of Congress.

And they’re not just selling bouquets. Flower vendors in Charleston, for example, would combine carrots, turnips, and potatoes into a bunch and sell them for people to use in soups.

In general, being a flower vendor meant that you were someone who had regular, daily interactions with the community. It also kind of makes you the person who is in the know.

When I’m reading some of the gossip columns of the New York Age, which was a Black newspaper in New York, they’d say something like, “Ellie was sent flowers on Monday from her sweetheart by Lucille Caines’ shop. Word is his wife is out of town!” You know, they’re just putting each other on blast!

This is something that consistently comes up in my research. What this means to me is that people probably had to make nice with the flower person, because otherwise they might give a little tidbit to the gossip columnist about who was in their shop.

We have to remember, there was no text messaging, there was no internet, the paper was coming out daily, maybe. And so flowers are a means of expression. Being a florist at that time really meant that you had some insight into the feelings of the people, the thoughts of the people.

That makes sense. If you’re doing flowers for funerals and weddings and dances, you’re really woven into the fabric of everyone else’s lives.

They’re involved in their community in a very multigenerational way. They’re there for the wedding, there when a child is born, there when the grandma passes away.

A black-and-white photo of a Black woman wearing a hat, glasses, and a long striped sleeveless dress holding two bouquets of flowers and standing next to a larger basket of flowers in front of a storefront.
A flower vendor in Harlem in 1935. Photo by Beatrice Kosofsky.

In general, throughout my book research, it was fun to learn about everyone’s hobbies. I wasn't thinking about my subjects’ personal lives at first, I was so focused on their careers and what they were growing. But then I’m like, Oh, these people are living!

They’re fashionistas, they are traveling. I think discovering that was the biggest joy for me. Learning who was the singer in the choir, or who was the best piano player; there was one gentleman who was a champion croquet player.

Of course, not discounting the fact they’re living in America at a time when there’s segregation, there’s a lot going on. But also, seeing their joy. You can’t spend every moment of your life in terror and fear and depression. You still have to live.

Have there been other big themes or takeaways that have come up for you as you’ve researched?

I have this hypothesis, and it’s coming from a place of personal experience. I have worked in horticulture for 24 years, I have a formal background in horticulture, and I grew up in it, going to a family farm on the weekend with my own family.

When you start seeing how Black people actively engaged in this work during the post-Civil War era, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, I think that flowers were not just a means of economic empowerment for them. I think it also had to do with their quality of life.

Flowers represent beauty. And I don’t think that this beauty is separate from their lived experience. I think that it makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning, because you have this beautiful piece of living art in front of you that you’re getting to share with the world, and you’re connected to it, you’re growing it.

There is documentation that when the Civil War happened in the South, and the South had burned to the ground, formerly enslaved people went back to the plantations and took the cuttings and the seeds and the roots of these flowers. And that’s why we have so many of our heirloom plants preserved today, so many of these old roses.

Life in segregated New York, too, was not some utopia. But as tough as things were, people had their flowers. And customers, too—times were tough, but they sure were going to get that flower for their Easter Parade hat.

Beauty is a very necessary thing, I think. Whether you’re a flower vendor in London, in the continent of Africa, in Virginia, in Brazil—these aren’t frivolous, feel-good careers. This is work that impacts people’s lives and can change people’s energy.

Flowers brought so much joy and meaning to these communities. And I think that’s why so many Black business owners have found success with them.

Ellie Shechet is an editor at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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