Magnolia Tree Earth Garden Center of Bed-Stuy Holds Their 2010 Annual Hattie Carthan Garden Party and Awards Ceremony

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Most people, when they think of magnolias, think of the South -Mississippi, Alabama, Atlanta - where they tend to proliferate. Originating in Surinam, they are some of the most beautiful and fragrant trees on the planet. In the South, one of the most beautiful things you could say about a woman is that she was as lovely as a magnolia blossom. That was considered the highest form of flattery (or praise).

But one generally does not think about Magnolia’s when it comes to Brooklyn, New York. Thank goodness Ms. Hattie Carthan had a sense of beauty and recognized the value of the magnolia trees that were facing demolition in Bed-Stuy, on Lafayette Ave. Had it not been for her insight, foresight, fortitude and valiant efforts, the event I’m writing about right now most likely would not be taking place:

Saturday, June 26, was a perfect day for the Magnolia Tree Earth Center Foundation to hold its annual Garden Party and Hattie Cathan Awards Ceremony. And the fantabulous Victorian Mansion on Hancock Street was truly the perfect place to hold it. Elegance met elegance, and everyone there had a wonderful time - including yours truly.

The event, which was in large part a tribute to Hattie Carthan, whose valiant efforts to save a magnolia tree from destruction, founded an entire institution and charity around it, was well attended, including Brooklyn Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, who provided the opening prayer and greetings.

It’s interesting to note that there are few, if any Magnolia Trees in Brooklyn, the south being its natural habitat. Even more interesting is the fervor with which Ms. Carthan was able to muster community support to not only save the magnolia tree, but to found an entire program set to preserve and respect the greenery in Brooklyn. You’d think that others would get it, considering that Brooklyn is full of deep yards, neighborhoods and parks. But there were still some who totally overlooked the obvious.

As a result, Ms. Carthan, in the 1970’s mustered her own little band of Angels whom she pressed into service to help her in her quest to preserve the green integrity of Bed-Stuy. A book, “Hattie’s Angels: Their Stories”, has been written about this legendary community leader and activist.

Nancy Wolf, a friend of Ms. Carthan and Vice President of the Board of Directors stated, “Hattie Carthan was green long before anyone knew what green was about.”

Ms. Wolf introduced three ladies, now in advanced ages, who, as youth, were pressed into service to interface with the parks department and other conservation organizations. Known as Hattie’s Angels, Vernelle Albury, Alma Carroll, and Elsie Richardson told of their glory day exploits with Ms. Carthan, whose mission drew them in and kept them involved even beyond her existence on earth.

By all accounts at the time she started her activities in Bed-Stuy, Ms. Carthan was no “spring chicken.” However, she didn’t let a little thing like “age” deter her from her goals. According to Ms. Alma Carroll: “We used to party and go out to the clubs, so you can see we had other things on our minds, but somehow Ms. Carthan’s gentle voice would come across the phone, ‘can you come and spend a few minutes with me?’ And I would say “No, I’ve got to go to the YIA, I’ve got to go Model Cities.‘ And here’s this old lady talking about come and spend a few minutes with her. You see us now saying ‘uh, I’m tired. Not with Aunt Hattie Carthan. We would be in the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, having a meeting, and what would we say, it’s time for the meeting to be over, and we’ve got to be at the Board of Estimates meeting tomorrow morning. And we would be thinking ‘I’ve got to go to my job, I’ve can’t do this.’ You dare not ask her ‘How do you feel Ms. Carthan?’ Because she would say ‘Oh! I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.’”

If you had a passion for your community, I promise you, Hattie Carthan would find you and you thought you would be joining her, but she would join you! And you would be part of Magnolia Tree Earth Center. She founded the Bedford Stuyvesant Beautification Association, and walked around from Vernon Avenue to Pulaski Street with that soft spoken voice.

She spoke of the concept of involving the youth: “If you look around you now, it’s surprising when I tell you that the people that you see in office and in high places they were were our future, our children. And here we are , 50 years later, they’re now seniors or on their way to being seniors, and we’re so proud. I took to saying years ago, we grew them wonderfully in Bedford Stuyvesant, and if you don’t believe it, look behind me is Annette Robinson (New York State Assembly). We remember her when she was in school. Now she’s the Assemblywoman, making rules and such. Passing the budget." She proudly nodded in the direction of Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, who was seated at a table behind her.

She continued reminiscing: “Yesterday morning, to my surprise, I received a proclamation from who was with her then from Councilmember Albert Vann, saying “she did all of this and all of that.” And I want you to know that I could not do it by myself. And I want you to know that all of these elders that you see, there are not many of us left, but I’ve made it a passion to fix it so that you and your grandchildren and great grand children will never forget -- not me, not Elsie, not Vernelle -- but all of those folks that came along during the sixties, during the Civil Rights thing. The grand children, the great grand children. That’s a heritage, that’s a legacy that won’t come again. Every child who comes here should know the name Shirley Chisolm, who took over Borough Hall Community room. I saw her portrait on the wall.”

She mentioned Vernelle Arbury, who “has kept the Shirley Chisolm program alive. It’s hard to do those things. But we’re always looking to young people, it’s not about the elders. It’s about the young ones. Your thing is tomorrow. I am so proud that I can look at what was then my future. I’ve lived long enough to look at my future and my future is saying “Isn’t she a wonderful person. Isn’t she a nice lady and she’s doing wonderful things. She’s right here.”

Nancy Wolf stated, “This will always be the heart and soul of everything we do. Telling the stories and remembering how it happened, and don’t forget the word “Angel“, and whenever she called me used the word “Angel“, you knew you had to do something!

David Greaves, who served as host for the evening’s events, introduced City Councilman Al Vann as one of the sons of Hattie Carthan. “I understand that one time, Ms. Carthan was trying to reach a politician. The politician would not come to the phone. She kept calling and calling, and he would not come. It was described that she went up there with her posse and bo-garded the room and sat him down and told him the way the world works. And he said yes, you know, you’re right. But you don’t have to do that with Councilman Vann. Councilman Vann’s been a big, big supporter. “

Councilman Vann, who always looks as though he could grace the cover of GQ, was dressed in summer green, no doubt in keeping with the theme of Greening and preservation: “Good Evening Brothers and sisters. It’s sort of humbling to be here in the presence of my mentors, if you will. As a young man growing up in Bedford Stuyvesant, after I’d finished all my basic training in education; when I came back home and was trying to find myself, I was, well, more than inspired -- I like to think that my philosophy of education was greatly shaped by the distinguished and dignified women who were running Bedford-Stuyvesant.” He mentioned others like Lucille Rose, Elmira Causey, Louise Boling who were also considered leaders that were instrumental in bringing stability to Bed Stuy.

He continued, “And to the extent that we are as stable as we are now in this community, we owe a great debt to them and to those ladies you see here before us. And I’m really honored. I’m not that much younger than they. And I’m just grateful that I experienced Bedford Stuyvesant under their leadership. Hattie Carthan, of course is one of those great leaders, and if you consider, that when we were trying to go Black, she was going green. Ponder that for a minute, I mean there was a whole movement so we could come into our consciousness about Blackness; and Hattie was beyond that. She was there and she was going beyond that level. Now I think she also exemplified what my grandmother used to say, “you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” So her manner, the way she spoke, who she was. But that was not her essence. Her essence was the determined, beautiful lady who made sure that Bedford Stuyvesant would get what they needed while she was still here.”

The Councilman also stated that Cauthan’s niece was married to his brother Charles, giving them a familial link as well.

He concluded, enthusiastically, “You know when Carthan made a call, you would just have to respond. That’s all. There’s no two ways about it. I can’t imagine refusing a call, or turning her down. Obviously she had a lot of help; nobody does anything by themselves. But she was the one; she was the core, she was the one they would gravitate to. She was the one who they would respond to. So this is a great day. She was a great lady. She will always live in the hearts of, and she will always be part of the legacy of Bedford Stuyvesant.”

Elizabeth Shultz, director emeritus of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and one of the very early large supporters of Ms. Hattie Carthan. She was one of the first people that really believed in her and helped her with her vision, and helped move her along in environmental awareness. Ms. Schultz spoke about an article that appeared in an Exxon Annual Report, with pictures of Hattie, entitled “What One Old Lady Can Do. “Well what one old lady can do is what you’ve been hearing about this evening. Just a remarkable person. She was also known as the “general” because she got things done.”

Ms. Shultz went on to state: “when groups work together they can really make our communities better. We have an organization there called Green Reach. This is an environmental program which started something I’m sure you’re all aware of -- the greenest block in Brooklyn. This is something that was started in 1994, and we ask the blocks to enter into the competition. In 1994 fifty blocks entered. Do you know how many have entered this year? 220! Of the 220, Bedford Stuyvesant has already 26 blocks. And in a competition like this everyone is a winner, because what they are doing is that they are greening the neighborhoods, and they’re making them more beautiful.”

The larger tie in is with the Million Trees Project launched by Bloomberg in 2007. Green Reach has also been instrumental in educating street tree stewards. Most people consider Hattie well ahead of her time by at least 40 years.. The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens offers free classes, with free tools for anyone interested in learning to maintain a green environment. You can also check out Brooklyn Urban Gardener “BUG” for short. They are educating and certifying 50 volunteers to help in greening programs throughout Brooklyn. You can look it up on www.BBP.org.

And when you thought the day couldn’t get any better, David Greaves had another surprise for the guests. “We have a very interesting situation here. We met Mr. Rodney Hughes of Therapute` Perfumes, and we got to him to Magnolia Tree, and he said that he would like to make a perfume from that.” {Now who does that? Where do you just walk into someone who just happens to be a perfumer, and just happens to want to make a distinct signature fragrance to benefit your organization? But, the truth is that David Greaves and Berniece Green -- the husband and wife team and founders/publishers of Our Times Press -- have a way of magnetizing the most unique people to them. And this, of course, is no exception.} After a year of working on the fragrance, Mr. Rodney Fitzgerald Hughes, of Therapeute` announced that he is nearly ready to premiere the perfume.

Hughes, who has been a resident in Bed Stuy for 5 years, stated, “about three years ago, I turned perfumer and after spending 20 years in the fashion industry, traveling the whole world, I started to go toward my fifties and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with the next part of my life. I started this company about three years ago. And it’s sustainable because we work with everything that’s natural. A lot of commercial fragrances, people started to complain about not having tolerance for them or it bothers their sinuses; or they just stopped wearing fragrances altogether. You know there are fragrances all around us in nature; and some of the best perfumes are in nature, but few are actually made from tree bark and flowers, and some leaves, and some things that we really enjoy. I started the company around a holistic lifestyle. You need health, you exercise. Then everything that touches your body or skin must be similar. Berniece and I got to talking -- she told me about the Magnolia Tree Center. I said I can make a tincture from the tree and maybe we can develop a fragrance around the tree that could benefit the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. That would be a great way to raise funds for the Tree Earth Center. We started about 18 months ago; harvesting last June the leaves and the flora from the tree. And it took about 18 months to develop a tincture. But now we have a tincture around which we can develop this fragrance and we’re hoping by the fall of this year that we will premiere this limited edition version of what we call ‘Magnolia Grandiflora." With that, his assistants passed out the tincture (which by the way smells wonderful!).

Hughes who is integrally involved with the Bed Stuy community, also sits on the board of the community block association, and is the treasurer for the Malcolm X Merchants Association. “I’m really involved in my community. I want to see great things happen in Bed Stuy. They way things are, you have always been helping me here. Some think the resources are invisible in this community, but we have a ton of resources here. It’s just a matter of getting out and grabbing them and getting involved.”

Another special guest was Mr. Stephen Mohney of Tech4Africa, who has been a teacher in Bedford Stuyvesant for 30 years; at PS 3, also is involved in doing development work in rural communities. He stated: “I have been traveling to Ghana for 35 years. 10 years ago I partnered with a young entrepreneur in Accra and together we built a technology center in the city of Accra to give access to underdeveloped and underprivileged communities in Accra. We are working to give them access to computer training. For the last 5 to 6 years we have been working together to build a rural community in the eastern part of Ghana. Last year we opened up a tech center in the village of Willie -- the section of Willie that we are in is Afegame, which means thick forest. And previously, it was a big rainforest area, but it’s now a combination of farm land. Lots of the forest has been taken down, and, even to this day, some of it is still being chopped up - I’m sad to report.” They have made computer technology free and available to the schools in the Ghanaian community. “Also my business partner, Yao Mulato in Ghana has purchased a lot of property in that community, and there we are replanting the rainforest. And I am here to invite you and the Magnolia Tree Earth Center to join us in this effort to help conservation in Africa.”


Kristina Beecher, Principal Bedford Village School/PS 3, received the award from Jitu Weusi. It recognized the excellence in achievement in continuing the good deeds to support grass roots efforts today to build sustainable communities tomorrow.

Beecher, who had been at PS 3 since she was 9 years old; taught there and later became its principal, stated: “We open up the Bedford Village School every morning with a pledge that “Our Heritage is one of greatness; and I know that I can do more; I must never ever do less than those who have gone before.’

Full Spectrum’s Carlton Brown and Walter Edwards were the developers of the Kalahari Condominium development (116th Streets and Fifth Avenue) in Harlem. The New York Times wrote on the success of this totally green development in Harlem. It’s one of the first of it’s kind.

Per Carlton A. Brown, Chief Operating Officer of Full Spectrum of New York: “What we are trying to do is to carry this sort of message about sustainability, about protecting the earth for the people of this community, to the next generation. One of the things that Walter and I have been doing is really starting to work with the young architects to tell them that there is a better way; that we can create inclusive communities that respect the environment and are more and more sustainable. When I say sustainable, it’s more than just about the earth, because in the final analysis, it’s about sustaining people as well. We have to find better ways to be more inclusive and to be sure that our resources are shared equitably. And so, the work that Hattie Carthen was doing was begun long before the words Black and environmental were used in the same sentence.”

Walter Edwards stated “I’m just honored and humbled to have received this award that’s in the name of this great lady. She was truly way ahead of our time. And for a country boy, you know this green thing is nothing new. For most people, you know, they take it as something new on the horizon. And I will say to you, from listening to the Angels, think about how she would call you out. From where I would come from, we would hug a tree; and I would say to everyone here to day to listen to her voice and to hug the magnolia tree."

Pamela E. Green, Executive Director, Weeksville Heritage Center stated, “Today is a day to respect our elders and it’s legacy, it’s all about legacy. So there’s a Joan Maynard, who was a collaborator, I’m sure, with Ms. Hattie Carthan. I didn’t know Ms. Carthan, but I did know Joan. I would not be here were it not for Joan Maynard. You may not think of her in terms of ecology, in terms of green; but you have to think of her in terms of activism; of making sure our history is known to folks.”

She continued, “We’ve been here for 40 years; we are a historic site, and we have all that’s left of a free African community that started here in Brooklyn in the mid-1800’s. The houses have been restored, we are a housing museum. However, this wonderful award is not only related to us in that we have the preservation of history, but because we also are a cultural and education center. It is a 19000 square foot building, that will allow us to expand our program, and it will be LEED Gold, (which is a big deal in the environmental business.) Not only is it a big deal, we will be the first African American cultural center in Brooklyn, and in New York to have a LEED gold building. We are very, very proud of that.”

Liam Kavanaugh, the Deputy Commissioner for New York City Parks, who has been so helpful to programs over Herbert Von King Park, and very supportive in the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, stated enthusiastically: “I’ve worked for the parks department for more than 28 years, and during that entire time I’ve been involved with maintaining trees all over the city. But it wasn’t until tonight that I learned how much of what we’re doing today with a million trees, with developing tree stewards; how we’re educating young people about the importance of the environment traces its roots back to Hattie Carthan, the Angels, Nancy Wolf, and all of the people who rallied to save that magnificent tree, and did so much more besides to help their community.”

David McMaster, Vice President, Bartlett Tree Service Experts stated: “Nancy has gotten me involved in quite a few things; and if it weren’t for Nancy, I wouldn’t have known anything about the wonderful magnolia trees here in Bedford-Stuy. I live way out on the west end of Long Island, pretty far away from where you folks are from, and where you live, but, I’m very proud to be involved in the 5 boroughs of the city with the Green Horizons, Green Futures, the Million Tree Program, and all of the wonderful things that happen in and around New York City.”

Dr. Vincentes Sanchez, USDA Forest Service, a native of Brooklyn who teaches entomology at the Parks Dept., and 'never met a bug he didn’t like,' stated, "I grew up in the Sumner Houses around the corner of Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg. I went to PS 59. I went to JHS 49 which was in Greenpoint and Williamsburg." He spoke of the busing program many school kids went through in the 70’s. “We got bused to Bensonhurst. A lot of people don’t know about busing back in the day. But before I was bused, Ms. Shirley Chisholm came to our school. She was a dynamic lady. She was only about that big, but that lady had soul, that it prevailed throughout the whole auditorium. I have been involved in green projects for fifteen years. They (US Forest Service) gave students the experience in the environmental careers area. The one thing I have noticed is that this is not the Southern Magnolia, but it is a magnolia and it is in bloom.”

Antonia Yuille Williams: Director, Community Affairs, Consolidated Edison, stated, “The Magnolia Tree Earth Center continues to be an important partner in Con Edison’s sustainability strategy. Part of Con Edison’s sustainability strategy is to promote green to our communities -- encourage our communities and our customers to make sustainable choices by sharing energy saving information. So, if you represent a community organization, and you would like to know more about our energy efficiency program, and how to save money, please just reach out to me and I will make sure that we have someone who is available to come and speak to you.”

Though two recipients, Sydney Katz of Super Food Town, and Ms. Akiima Price, Chief of Education and Programs of New York Restoration Programs, were not able to attend, the program was nonetheless overwhelmingly impressive. This perfectly balmy evening, having staved off a threatened thunderstorm, was capped off by wonderful food and the R&B song stylings of Brooklyn's home grown talent, U4RIA, with one of Hattie's original Angels, Lemuel Mial. They had the guests ready to get up and dance to their energetic song styles.

For those of you who are not familiar with Ms. Carthan, this is a brief bio on her work and accomplishments (of course, I googled her):
BIO HATTIE CARTHAN Hattie Carthan (1900-1984) of Bedford-Stuyvesant, always had an interest in trees. When she noticed conditions in her neighborhood beginning to deteriorate, Mrs. Carthan began replanting trees there and in the process helped found the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood Tree Corps and the Green Guerillas. Mrs. Carthan started the Tree Corps in 1971 as a way to teach young people how to care for trees. As a volunteer organization providing supplies, advice and encouragement for all types of urban community green spaces, the Green Guerillas were the force behind the resurgence of the community garden movement in the 1970s. The organization began informally in 1974 with tactics as simple as throwing water balloons filled with seeds into abandoned lots; the positive response showed the overwhelming need for more green space in the inner city.

A proponent of strong neighborhood associations, Carthan became the chairwoman of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Committee – an effort that brought together 100 block associations in a project that added over 1,500 trees to the neighborhood. Mrs. Carthan also led the charge to preserve a particular Southern magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) that became a symbol of the neighborhood. The tree, rare in the northeast, was brought on a ship from North Carolina in 1885. Carthan not only succeeded in having a wall built to protect this tree but also spearheaded the successful attempt to designate it an official city landmark in 1970. It is one of only two trees to be designated as such (and, after the death of the Weeping beech tree in Queens in 1998, the only landmarked tree still standing). Carthan continued her campaign by convincing the City to convert three nearby abandoned homes into the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. The brownstones on Lafayette and Marcy Avenues behind Hattie Carthan Garden date to the 1880s and now feature a mural depicting Mrs. Carthan.

“Lives of great men (women) all remind us, we can make our lives sublime. And in passing leave behind us, footprints in the sands of time.”

I learned that saying when I was a kid. I don’t know who said it, but that is so much like what Hattie Carthan, and her little band of Angels have done for Brooklyn. She certainly blazed a trail for us to follow. We just have to keep on the path.

Stay Blessed &
Gloria Dulan-Wilson

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