New oral history project spotlights stories of Ypsi's farmers and gardeners

From promoting the importance of land ownership to making sure neighborhoods don't go hungry, Ypsilanti-area food growers' stories are captured in a new oral history project. 
From promoting the importance of land ownership to making sure neighborhoods don't go hungry, Ypsilanti-area food growers' stories are captured in a new oral history project. Conceived and researched by University of Michigan-Dearborn Assistant Professor of Human Services Finn Bell, the Ypsi Farmers & Gardeners Oral History Project will live and continue to grow on the Ypsilanti District Library's (YDL) local history website alongside existing local history collections.

"Telling your story is good medicine"

The project grew out of doctoral dissertation work Bell was doing before the COVID-19 pandemic, focused on Black, Indigenous, people of color, or working-class farmers and gardeners. 

"I was thinking about how growing food can be an act of resistance and resilience," Bell says. "There's such a rich history of Black resistance in the face of climate change and gentrification."

Bell says he was struck by one participant's comment that "telling your story is good medicine."

"I was worried that I was bothering people, so hearing him talk about stories as medicine was really moving, and affirming that this was a worthwhile project," Bell says. 
U of M-Dearborn Assistant Professor of Human Services Finn Bell.
Bell says he was clear from the start that these were "not my stories to tell," and that the research he was doing was already framed by his own "white, middle-class lens." That led him to the oral history format for the interviews, as well as hosting meetings with community partners about how to best package and provide context for the interviews. 

"I really felt people needed to be able to tell their own stories in their own words," Bell says. 

Along with assistant Briana Hurt, Bell found several local gardeners or farmers to interview, and several of those connections lead to other potential interviewees. 

Omer Jean Winborn, a YDL board member, local genealogy enthusiast, and co-founder of the Washtenaw County African American Genealogy Society, was one of those local gardeners. She not only provided her own story, but also helped Bell and his team obtain other interviews and interviewed several participants herself. 

Besides Winborn, the other participants featured in the series so far include Melvin Parson, founder of Ypsilanti Township-based nonprofit We the People Opportunity Farm; Ypsilanti Township-based Master Gardener Patricia Wells; Ypsilanti-based gardener Versel Jones; Linda Mealing, a gardener active with the New West Willow Neighborhood Association and its West Willow Community Garden; and Lisa Bashert, an Ypsilanti-based beekeeper and co-founder of the Cooperative Orchard of Ypsilanti.
Lisa Bashert at the Cooperative Orchard of Ypsilanti.
Family traditions and maximizing land use

YDL Adult Services Librarian Amisha Harijan says common themes emerged from the interviews, and a big one was the family traditions associated with growing your own food.

"I loved hearing Linda Mealing and Patricia Wells talk about how gardening created a connection with their family," Harijan says. "You're feeding your family and telling stories that pass on the family history while you're doing it."

Winborn says her interest in growing food and in genealogy are a good match.

"Most of our history as Black people includes food," Winborn says. 
Washtenaw County African American Genealogy Society co-founder Omer Jean Winborn.
She recalls her family and others from her generation having a "bean-picking party" and sitting around a pot snapping beans afterward. She notes that her great-nieces are now learning those food traditions from their elders.

Bell notes that elders of color he interviewed had a different mindset around growing their own food than "middle-class white homesteaders who want to do it all themselves."

"That wasn't at all what anyone we interviewed was talking about," Bell says. "It was about how do you grow a community, how do you share and take care of each other?"

Another theme was finding land and not letting it go to waste. Many of the participants or their families, including Jones and Winborn's father, grew food in spaces that weren't officially sanctioned for gardening but that nobody else was using.

"I remember more than one talking about letting the land go to waste when there's so much that can be done with it," Harijan says. 
YDL Adult Services Librarian Amisha Harijan.
Bell says he was impressed by Wells' story of growing up in an Black neighborhood in Detroit where it was normal to grow and cook your own food.

"I remember her saying she begged for a boxed cake mix, and then she was horrified at how it tasted," Bell says. 

Winborn says she didn't think her family's story was remarkable in any way until she started talking more about it as part of the project.

"My dad was a sharecropper, and coming from the south to the north, we always had a garden," Winborn says. "There was no food insecurity in my neighborhood growing up. My dad had a garden across the street, and everyone in the community was allowed to eat out of it. My mother was a wonderful cook, too. We fed the whole community."

A living collaboration with YDL

It was important to Bell that the histories be easy for community residents to access, "something that is not true for most dissertations," he says. That's how the partnership with YDL came about.

Harijan says she knew about the project before Bell secured a grant from the Arts Initiative at the University of Michigan. She says library staff felt the project would be a "perfect addition" to the A.P. Marshall Oral History Project, a collection of stories of Black Ypsilantians, which the library's website hosts. Library staff had been planning to revamp their history page anyway, and it "all tied in very well," Harijan says. YDL's Ypsi History page now houses two oral history projects, genealogy resources, and the Ypsi Stories history podcast.

The project officially opened to the public with six interviews during a ceremony in December, but the collection will grow over time. Harijan says about 60 people turned out to the launch event, where large portraits of each interviewee were on display, accompanied by select text from their interviews. Attendees heard from storytellers, poets, and documentary filmmakers during the event as well. 
Amisha Harijan, Finn Bell, and Omer Jean Winborn at the YDL Whittaker Road branch.
Harijan says she "can't wait" to see the collection grow as Bell and his team add more interviews. 

"We're hoping for a total of 20 to 25, and it may grow larger than that," she says. "We want people to engage with it and see how they can work with their neighbors. We're housing it, but it's a living project."

You can listen to all the oral histories here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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