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Los Angeles Times

IN A GARDEN STEEPED IN MILWAUKEE’S RACIST PAST, BLACK RESIDENTS FIND A SALVE FOR WEARY SPIRITS.

By TYRONE BEASON OCT. 29, 2020   

On the first day of fall, Venice Williams joined a small group of women for a morning tea ceremony at Alice’s Garden to celebrate the autumn equinox.

Sage burned, purifying the air and cleansing the spirit.

The garden was in transition. The last tomatoes of the season hung overripe on the vines. Sunflowers with fading petals drooped under their own weight. The first frost, not far away.

Williams, who serves as the communal farm’s executive director, told the women that the changing of the seasons can help them cope with upheaval, sorrow and loss — private heartache, the death of a loved one, a stranger killed by police.

The garden itself is a rare oasis in Milwaukee’s historically Black northwest side, which has few public places for people to reflect. Alice’s Garden feels like a salve for a weary spirit.

In a society with a history of treating Black people and other people of color as if they don’t belong, Williams wants them to know that in this garden, they don’t have to doubt it.

“We grow community, we grow friendships, we grow families,” Williams said. “It’s got to be more than food sometimes.”

Venice Williams, right, stands and peaks in a community garden as another woman watches.

Despite the looming election, talk of politics here takes a back seat to yoga sessions on the grassy lawn, lessons in urban farming and classes on coping with grief.

Growing on the 120 parcels are rows of beans and kale, collards and corn, orange calendula, fragrant lavender and different varieties of mint. A meditation labyrinth paved with stones spirals inward along a path overgrown with shrubs, offering a space to get lost in one’s own thoughts or lay down burdens.

Here, fresh air fills the lungs. The only sound is of crickets chirping.

Some people come just for the tranquillity.

“A garden gives you a picture of what the world could be,” said Anthony Courtney, a retired Black schoolteacher who sat at a picnic table and read from a book on mental health one evening.

Anthony Courtney sits at a wood table in a community garden.

“You’ve got people coming in peace,” Courtney, 74, said. “You don’t have no drama out here. You walk outside these doors, you’ve got drama.”

If there was ever a year when Black Americans needed places to retreat and visualize how the world — and their country — “could be,” it’s this one.

Police killings of Black people. A coronavirus pandemic that’s taken the lives of more than 227,000 Americans, a third of them Black. A president who’s staked his law and order message on depicting peaceful anti-racism protesters as thugs and anarchists.

[…]

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