Reckoning at the Garden: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

two stones mark an enslaved person's grave at the Morgan/Mason Family Cemetery

By Nick Adams, Battle Park Manager

Black lives matter. At the North Carolina Botanical Garden, we stand in solidarity with those calling for accountability and justice. We share your sorrow and anguish over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and David McAtee, and over the tragic reality that these are only the latest instances in our country’s long history of violent racism.

Environmentalism, land conservation, and public gardens in the U.S. have long been framed from a white perspective, often at the expense of people of color. We acknowledge the continued impact of this history –– that for people of color, today’s gardens, parks, and natural areas may not be neutral, apolitical, or restorative spaces.

We are committed to creating an environment in our gardens and natural areas where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone feels safe and welcome. As a garden focused on conserving the incredible biodiversity of southeastern native plants, we recognize that just as diversity is critical to a healthy ecosystem, diversity in our people and our perspectives makes our organization and community stronger.

We made this statement back in early June in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This statement was met with a lot of support…and a few questions, especially about framing environmentalism and land conservation from a white perspective. In response, we are writing a series of articles to share with you examples of systemic racism in environmentalism and land conservation, including policies and actions implemented by institutions large and small to actively exclude Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Once we talk about the big picture, we can reckon the ways the Garden has benefited from systemic racism. Ultimately, we are counting on transparency and knowledge to move us forward to become an actively inclusive institution.

This first article is a brief introduction to racism issues in conservation and the Garden’s history. In later articles, we will explore these issues in more detail, including the birth of environmentalism and its interconnectedness with the social climate of the time, dispossession of land, exclusionary practices on lands protected for the sake of the public, and the Garden’s strategy to become an actively inclusive institution. In each section, we will examine how the Garden’s story relates to and can improve from the knowledge we gain from this process.

The Garden has discussed our growing concern over the visible and conspicuous lack of participation by diverse groups in our membership, visitors, volunteers, program participants, and staff for years. In spring of 2019, we created our diversity and inclusion committee to delve into this problem and attempt to find solutions. The primary goal of the committee is to formulate a strategy to become an actively inclusive institution. While the door has theoretically always been open to people of all backgrounds due to our status as an outreach-focused public garden, in reality, simply leaving a door open for marginalized groups is not an effective way to include marginalized groups. There is a large body of research which characterizes why and how BIPOC were actively excluded from the environmental and conservation movement, and why and how they still do not feel included today, such as “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors” by Carolyn Finney.

The North Carolina Botanical Garden is a place of refuge, recreation, and learning, and each visitor sees the Garden through a unique lens. There is a great convergence of understanding and appreciation for the story we try to tell as an institution, regardless of the lens. That story begins with the plants of the Southeast and particularly North Carolina, and it adheres to a notion that the natural landscape of North Carolina is an immense garden. The story grew over time to encompass the diversity of life that native plants support and benefit, as well as to emphasize reconnecting people with plants through food, therapy, and art.

We acknowledge the real benefits land conservation and environmentalism have provided to many citizens in this country over decades. We are grateful to the benefactors who helped make this Garden become a reality. However, we would also like to understand and acknowledge the social costs that led to the establishment of the Garden. To understand our history, it is helpful to understand the history of many public outdoor spaces and the genesis of the exclusionary policies and practices that led to the establishment of those spaces. Many exclusionary policies and practices are still in place today and serve as an obstacle to many groups.

Here at the Garden, there is a more complete story to tell about our own history. By telling that story, we hope to engage more community members and enrich the Garden experience by welcoming those who have been excluded to contribute to the story. One way we can tell the full story is to acknowledge and interpret the social history of the Garden’s land.

According to Kemp Plummer Battle’s History of the University of North Carolina, “Mark Morgan, one of the earliest settlers, lived on his lands, bought of Earl Granville, three miles southeast of the village, the land reaching to the summit of New Hope Chapel Hill. Of his two sons John moved west in 1823, and Solomon lived and died on the homestead. Half of his land, about 800 acres including the homestead, descended to his daughter, Mary Elizabeth, the wife of Rev. James Pleasant Mason. She bequeathed it to the University to found a fund in memory of her daughters, Martha and Varina, who died within a month of one another.”

This tale leaves us with many questions. Who was here contributing to the land use and stewardship on behalf of and with the Morgans and Masons? Who lived here before the Morgans? And, throughout, in an attempt to maintain one major purpose of a botanical garden, what was the story of plants during those times? How were plants regarded and used by the people who lived here? This is one set of questions we can ask to help inform our interpretive materials moving forward.

As we acknowledge the past and understand how the Garden arrived here, we ask questions that are both simple and ponderous. How was the story of the Garden shaped? How does it fit into the environmental and land conservation narrative? How were those narratives shaped? And, how can we add to the Garden’s narrative in the spirit of acknowledging that there is a deeper story to tell?

We don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but we are embarking on a journey of discovery. We are intent on sharing with you, our members and friends, the deeper history of the land by pondering the sense of the Garden’s place, and, of equal importance, providing examples of exclusionary practices that are embedded in the environmental and land conservation culture, as we strive to become a more inclusive institution. This is a learning process, and we encourage you to email us at with suggestions.

Photo: An enslaved person’s grave at the Morgan/Mason Family Cemetery. It was customary to place a large stone behind a smaller field stone that marks the grave.