In the 1940s, gardening clubs were a primary social outlet for Pittsburgh’s middle- and upper-class women. One of the few acceptable activities for discerning housewives of the elite, the clubs often sold the plants and flowers they grew in local markets. But women who looked like Harriet Thomas were not members of those clubs.
“We would go to the main market and we would see none of our children. No black faces,” says Mrs. Thomas, a Turtle Creek resident who has been gardening since she was 5.
So nearly 75 years ago, local African-American women started the Stoop N’ Bend Club. Ever since, its members have been tirelessly gardening at the community level while also challenging racial stratification.
Aluvia Waters, who was identified as Mrs. Charles J. Waters Jr., founded the club on July 20, 1940, “to stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening; to aid in the protection of native plants, trees and birds; and encourage civic planting.” The first African-American female gardening club in the city, it was partially supported by wealthy white women who wanted to give their employees the same sort of opportunities they enjoyed, even while maintaining that their two worlds remain separate.
In its early days, Stoop N’ Bend was an organization where wealthier black women could learn gardening tips from each other and plan events for the community. Despite its focus on women, it was a member’s husband, Rodney Pryor, who gave the group its name, describing the way the ladies would “stoop and bend” while tending to their plants.
Mrs. Waters, the founder, would be president for eight consecutive years. In 1945, the Pittsburgh Courier reported that the “popular and energetic” club hosted an annual Harvest Dinner at the Kay Boys Club on Sept. 20. In 1958, the club was commended for contributing to many community events that year, including sending gifts to the needy and donating flowers to the veterans hospital.
Then and for most of the club’s history, few of its members worked outside the home. A 1965 Pittsburgh Courier article on the club’s new officers identified them only by their husband’s names.
“Back in the day, they never used the woman’s first name. All the names in all the booklets were ‘Mrs. Charles’ and ‘Mrs. William’ and ’Mrs.’ whatever else,” says Agnes Curry, the current president, a Point Breeze resident who joined the club in 2004 and is its newest member.
Today, much has changed, but the commitment to service remains the same. The club meets once a month and often is involved in planting new areas, volunteering with local children, and helping businesses develop their gardens. The club’s “plant doctor,” a position now held by Carolyn Collier, who has an expansive garden at her home in Penn Hills, gives tips and discusses new techniques and products at its monthly meeting.
In many ways, Stoop N’ Bend is living testament to what 74-plus years of social and cultural change can do. Simultaneously forward-thinking and retro, the club is now challenged to increase membership and preserve its long and storied history.
“We’d like to keep the tradition going if we can,” Mrs. Curry says. “The younger people have so many more options than the ladies that stayed home back in the day. And when women are professional lawyers and such, they’re not into gardening as much.
“They need flowers, they go buy flowers. Gardening is dirty work!”
She hopes that the 75th anniversary next year will draw attention to the club and bring out people who may have forgotten about it. Stoop N’ Bend is now the last predominately African-American gardening club in the city.
For the members, it is about continuing the legacy of a club for women who care about their community and each other. Mrs. Thomas, who was born in Connecticut but has been a Pittsburgh resident since the ’40s, recalls a white friend of hers named Estelle who was ostracized for advocating on the club’s behalf to the National Gardening Association.
“She took an ear-beating for years up at that garden center. She paid a dear price,” says Mrs. Thomas.
“But you leave something. Your legacy. That’s what we’re worried about — the legacy of our club. What we did, what we’re doing, and what we hope to do.”
The founding motto of the club speaks to the overarching importance of leaving good works behind:
“We pass this way but once, let us beautify the way we go, so the world may know which way we went.”
“That’s what’s important to us as a group,” says Mrs. Thomas. “Beautify every place you go. Change the environment for the better.”
Alexis Wilkinson: email@example.com, 412-263-1581, or on Twitter @OhGodItsAlexis.