The soil in Willie Morgan’s Harlem gardening plot is nothing compared to that back home in his native Georgia.
But it is fertile enough for him to grow more than a dozen vegetables – collard greens and okra, onions and stevia. To one side, he even has a peach tree that in the summer produces blindingly sweet fruit.
Every year, the 78-year-old also grows something with a much darker, troubling history – cotton. He does so to teach local children about a fundamental part of American history, the effects of which still ache like an open wound.
“I tell the kids about, tell them that the jeans they’re wearing come from cotton. They don’t know anything about it,” he said. “I give them the cotton and they can take it into their classes.”
He added: “This is what slavery was about. They did not have machines. They needed people to pick it…[That way] they know about the cotton, they know what their forefathers did.”
The first slaves, seized from Africa, were brought to the new English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. At the time of the US Civil War, for which the South’s desire to maintain slavery was a major trigger, there were four million slaves.
The legacy of this wholesale bondage has continued to shake and shape America’s history, from reconstruction through the civil rights movement. The recent documentary,13th, has explored how the nation’s criminal justice system, in which people of colour are disproportionately imprisoned, has its genesis in the formal ending of slavery.