It’s a warm June morning around 9 a.m., and Thelma Byers-Bailey has just pulled up to Lincoln Heights Park. Only today, she’s not wearing business attire. She’s decked out in tennis shoes, gloves, and a sun hat.
While many know her as vice-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, she’s also president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association, where she serves as co-captain for the Lincoln Heights community garden – over two dozen raised beds bursting with greenery that will become tomatoes, squash, kale, strawberries, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, and much more.
“This is the most productive turnout we’ve had,” Byers-Bailey said. The fruits and vegetables are the result of a multi-generational group of neighbors who’ve worked to supply their own groceries.
It runs in the family
Gardening is in Byers-Bailey’s blood. Her grandparents, who lived on Beatties Ford Road, farmed a vacant lot next to their home and her parents did the same. Her family dragged her along to teach the craft.
Historic West End
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“I hated it,” she said, “but I guess you learn to appreciate it as you get older, and the importance of eating this stuff.”
The Beatties Ford Road corridor has been labeled a food desert because it has few places where residents can buy fresh foods.
Gardening is “cheap,” Byers-Bailey said. “You have to have money to buy from Food Lion.” She recalls seeing a $2 asking price for a three-ounce package of blackberries. “I said, ‘okay, I’ll visit my garden.’”
Her work in the garden includes weeding (though each gardener is responsible for keeping the area surrounding their beds clear, some have grown very advanced) and turning on the intricate drip irrigation system, which she installed herself, modeled after the one she has in her backyard.
“I don’t find it therapeutic because it’s exhausting,” she said. “But I do enjoy the food.” She finds the food she grows on her own is more flavorful and nutritious than what she finds on supermarket shelves.
Sharing the abundance
A fig tree, a blackberry bush and multiple mulberry trees stand just outside the fence, littering the sidewalk with their red and navy splatters. Once upon a time, two blueberry bushes grew beside the fence, but they were mistakenly mowed down by the county.
“We planted the blackberry bush outside the fence to entice the children,” said Byers-Bailey. In the early days of the garden, there was no fence and hungry mouths of all species took their pick of the fresh produce. “Anybody could walk up and see what you had,” she said.
On one occasion, a senior community with mobility needs was shocked when she caught two women helping themselves to her hard-earned melon. They apologized and she confiscated it from them. In another instance, a five-year-old girl had begged her parents to take her to the garden to work on growing a watermelon. Much to her disappointment, someone had snatched it up. In another event, one unfortunate neighbor mistook a suspiciously plump rat for one of the sweet potatoes she was harvesting.
Many families, as they grow their horticultural skills, leave the community garden to their own backyards. “Lost that family,” Byers-Bailey said.
Byers-Bailey clarified the difference between what’s inside and outside of the fence. In 2014, the National Recreation and Park Association came to Lincoln Heights to improve the park and added a better fence. Byers-Bailey later applied for a $25,000 Neighborhood Matching grant from the City of Charlotte, which supplied the funds for the blackberry and blueberry plants and an even better fence – which is now padlocked.
Despite issues of food insecurity on the West End, Byers-Bailey believes the theft is due to temptation and likens it to leaving an unsecured bicycle on your front porch. An outdoor ping-pong table stands a few feet from the fenced garden, which serves as a place for surplus produce. Growers also share their abundance with their circle of friends or church communities.
More than just plants
More grows here than just plants. It’s in the name: community. To Yasmin Benton, one of the younger gardeners at 45, the benefits are numerous. Benton’s journey with the garden started as outreach coordinator at Redemption Worship Center, where she worked to address the needs of the community.
For one, Lincoln Heights Park gets a lot of foot traffic. It’s a resting place for the homeless folks, a roost for teens skipping school and a path where grandparents can teach their grands how to walk. All are curious about the garden.
Benton has spent afternoons teaching young passersby about the blackberry bush and passing cucumbers over the fence to community members in need. Another gardening neighbor, “Mr. Williams,” taught her the generational and community knowledge of safely preparing poisonous pokeweed.
It takes a village
Garden operations are largely non-hierarchical. Byers-Bailey gives new gardeners the code for entry and briefs them on their responsibilities, but when school board duties call, co-captain and neighborhood association board member Peggy Lumas takes the reins.
“We work together as a team,” like taking turns irrigating the garden weekly and pulling rogue weeds, said Lumas.
“She and I usually do the running around,” she said. “We check other people’s gardens and get ideas.” Lumas attends County Parks & Recreation trainings and reports back what she learned to Byers-Bailey.
“She’s so busy and can’t do all the trainings I do, so I call her and tell her what I just learned,” Lumas said. You may see foil at the roots of squash plants, meant to protect against harmful mites, or marigolds decorating the beds, which repel other pests while attracting pollinator bees.
Other than that, Lumas said, “we have fun just sweatin’ together.”
A steward of the community
Byers-Bailey’s civil service doesn’t stop in the garden. She also serves on the Historic West End Neighborhood Association and the Northwest Corridor Council of Elders. All of this, she says, is paying what she owes to the community that made her.
“Lincoln Heights created me,” she said. A lawyer by profession, she once had her own practice in California.
“As an attorney, I put my practice in a community just like Lincoln Heights,” she said. She accepted clients regardless of their ability to pay her for her services. As her parents got older, she left her law practice to return to Lincoln Heights and care for them for ten years. “It’s what you do. It’s the rent you owe for living on this earth.”
Byers-Bailey has also played an instrumental role in preserving the history of the West End and upgrading facilities for some of its schools. These are some of her proudest accomplishments.
The first success that comes to mind is her hand in getting new grounds for West Charlotte High School, her alma mater. She took a survey of all school buildings, and many facilities had issues, she said.
“Only about five had significant life left in them,” she said. Wilson STEM Academy will also get a new building, thanks to her arguments against K-8 schools. In her view, elementary school environments “stall” the maturity of middle school students.
Though CMS has faced significant hiccups this year – a record number of firearm confiscations, sexual assaults, superintendent firing, and wasted funds on backpacks – Byers-Bailey has a positive outlook advocating for students.
“[School board members] supervise the superintendent,” she said. “If we see a situation that is hurting our students, we bring it to the superintendent’s attention.”
“I tell [CMS Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh] what’s wrong, why it’s wrong, and he says, ‘oh, you’re right,’” she said.
The raised beds that now sit in Lincoln Heights Park are the collaborative effort of the community. Students from Northwest School of the Arts worked to paint and fill the beds with soil. As part of an art project, they also installed raised terra-cotta pots in each bed in case growers want to plant flowers.
Patience is key
“You can grow almost anything [in these beds],” says Byers-Bailey. Her bed has wispy green sprouts – the starts of asparagus, one of her favorite vegetables. It will take two years before they produce edible fibrous stalks.
Another one of her favorites, cilantro, is next on her list of groceries.
“You can never have too much cilantro,” she said. However, she’s been having difficulty getting the delicate plants to sprout. She remains determined. Why? “Because I want to eat it!”
Yasmin Benton admires Byers-Bailey.
“Even when she’s stressed, she just shakes it off,” about Byers-Bailey. “She has truly learned her place in this life and that’s 80% of the battle.”