ESLARP East St. Louis Action Research Project
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

LA 437/465 Final Reports
The Spirit of African-American Yards

The Spirit of African-American Yards

Front Yard Designs in East St. Louis



The research of folk gardening traditions is slowly beginning in the United States. As a result, African-American yards have received little systematic attention to date. Several researchers who have made scholarly contribution directly to African-American yards are Richard Westmacott, Robert Farris Thompson, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, and Judith McWillie.

This study explores the vernacular language of African-American front yards of the Edgemont neighborhood which locates in the southeast end of the city of East St. Louis. By identifying existing cultural-specific residential landscape features and structures, African-American front yard prototypes have been developed.

The Historical References

J. B. Jackson once said, "we can only start to understand the contemporary landscape by studying what we have rejected and what we have retained from the past." Thus it is very important for us to trace the evolution of the vernacular landscape for a better understanding of today's landscape.

According to the historical photo of people's life in the South, it is worth noting that the yard adjacent to the cabin was filled with a rain barrel, washtubs, fencing, wagon wheels, an outdoor fireplace, sawbucks, and chickens. Many of these objects become recurring themes of contemporary African-American yards.

The Beliefs and Values Associated with the Yard

The Cultural Meanings

Westmacott points out that the arrangements, the decorative ornaments, and recycled materials in African-American yards are rich in meanings and associations for their owners. In fact, trees, fields, rocks, and other features of the landscape became invested with spiritual significance and interwoven with the life courses of African-American individuals.

African Influences in the Yard

In "The Song That Named the Land: The Visionary Presence of African-American Art," in Black Art: Ancestral Legacy (1989), Robert Farris Thompson noted that "yard-shows assimilate the artistic and philosophic values of classical Kongo culture". He summarized the recurring themes as following:

According to Grey Gundaker (1993), additional themes are:

Characteristics of Front Yards in Edgemont

Across the United States, many African-Americans have created striking yards in their neighborhoods. They decorate their yards using a flexible visual vocabulary that revitalizes African traditions through everyday materials.

Past studies have suggested that people often treat their yard as an extension of the house. Although the front yards reveal few signs of activity, and are not put to much practical use, they are important indicators of good citizenship and concern for the neighborhood image. ( Christopher Grampp, 1985 )

The front yards I have seen in edgemont neighborhood are largely open space--lawns, and paths, decorated with trees and shrubbery, and folk and popular yard ornaments. Most front yards consist of foundation plantings of evergreen shrubs or hedges, small perennial borders, and a lawn.

Found Materials and Icons

Landscape Hard Material

The mass-produced yard ornaments are bought: classical Victorian planter, sculpted lions, birdbath, geese, artificial flower.

Vegetation Treatment

African-American Front Yard Prototypes

The visual importance of the open front yard should not be underestimated because the spaciousness and greenery play an important role in establishing neighborhood appearance and character.

It is evident that the wealthier families have less indication of traditional practice in their yards which may partially due to the process of cultural assimilation. Several front yard prototypes have been identified from the field visits.

Interpretation of Nature

These front yards shows contrasting visions of beauty in nature.

Traditional Yard

These yards represent the unselfconscious design of traditional African-American gardening practice. Commonly found features are tire planters, stone-boarded shrubs and other popular and folk yard ornaments.

Where Modern Meets Tradition

These yards incorporate traditional practice and contemporary ones.


It is great to see that in the middle-class neighborhoods of cities, small yards strikingly different in design and materials from the common front yard of lawn and shrubbery. However, it is very sad to realize as soon as their owners are culturally assimilated, those lovely landscapes will disappear. J. B. Jackson (1994) noted that "(vernacular) gardens teach us more than we are aware of. It could be where the family members work together and learn traditions and beliefs."

African-American front yards assimilate the artistic and philosophic values of classical African-American culture. Many recurring themes are found in Edgemont neighborhood and further research should be conducted on use and design of backyards as well. A garden manual like "How to make an African-American Yard" will contribute to the sense of place of the city as well as enhance the pride of African-American culture among the citizens. In the process of searching of the spirit of African-American yards, we will benefit from the traditional garden practice which may serve to protect and foster a distinct culture.

Document author(s) : Yan Xu
HTML by : Yan Xu
Last modified: December 8, 1995

LA 437/465 Final Reports

East St. Louis Action Research Project
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