Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America

By Winter, Kari J. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America


Winter, Kari J., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America. By Myra B. Young Armstead New York University Press, 2012. 209 pp. $35.

Horticulture in its myriad forms---from cultivating crops to creating pleasure gardens---has played a central role in American history. The continent's vast quantities of space and natural resources provided unprecedented opportunities for Euro-Americans to cultivate, classify, learn, produce, and expand in both material and ideological ways. Far from a merely natural occupation, gardening was infused with the national and transnational politics of labor, gender, race, and empire. Gardens played significant roles in both the exploitation and the survival of African Americans, whether they were free or enslaved. Many black gardeners were locally recognized for their extraordinary expertise, but most of what historians can glean about their lives and work comes from cursory references in documents authored by the white elite. Thus a diary written by an African American gardener over forty years (1826-1866) is an invaluable treasure trove, as Myra B. Young Armstead, Professor of History at Bard College, recognized when she first encountered James F. Brown's diary on display at Mount Gulian, a National Historic Landmark and museum in upstate New York. Brown (1793-1868) was born as a slave in Maryland, probably in Fredericktown, and he escaped from slavery in 1826. In 1827 he was hired by the Verplanck family of New York, a prominent, wealthy clan of Dutch descent and antislavery sentiments. He quickly proved to be a skillful, reliable employee. When a dinner guest recognized Brown as a runaway, the Verplancks helped arrange for him to buy his freedom from his legal owner, Susan Williams of Baltimore. Brown spent most of the rest of his life working for the Verplancks, rising from a menial laborer to the position of head gardener at their country estate, Mount Gulian, which is located at Fishkill Landing in the Hudson Valley. He attained a level of prosperity sufficient to buy the freedom of his wife Julia, who had stayed behind in Maryland, and to purchase a house complete with his own gardens (both for pleasure and for agriculture) and the other features of a middle-class lifestyle.

Freedom's Gardener is divided into three parts. Part I focuses on Brown's life as a slave. Because little about Brown's early life can be documented, Armstead interweaves an overview of slavery in Maryland with a great deal of conjecture about who Brown might have been and what he might have done. He apparently used at least three names or aliases: Anthony Chase, Anthony Fisher, and James Brown. His success at self-concealment helped to enable his survival and escape at the time, but continues to render his early life elusive to history. Armstead has uncovered one extraordinary document that he authored during this period: a letter of August 8, 1827 addressed to a wealthy white man explaining and justifying his decision to run away from slavery. In lengthy, eloquent paragraphs, Brown reveals that he thought long and hard about this decision. In the end, he was willing to risk everything not merely "because I wish to be free but because I want to do justice to myself and to others and also to procure a living for a family." (25)

Part II provides a fascinating, well-researched account of James Brown's achievements as a master gardener at Mount Gulian along with fresh, original insights into nineteenth-century New York society. …

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