An African American Tree Activist Lived in Brooklyn
A Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, still grows in Brooklyn, one of the botanical legacies of African American environmental activist Hattie Carthan. The tree, located at 679 Lafayette Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, was landmarked on May 12, 1970. It had been planted as a seedling, sourced from North Carolina, in 1885.
A hybrid magnolia named for Carthan also grows in Brooklyn Botanic Garden. When the magnolias bloom this spring, they’ll remind us of her story—one of a persistent commitment to environmental justice and community greening.
Hattie Carthan (née Lomax) was born in Virginia in 1900. Her family migrated to New York in 1928, and she moved to Bed-Stuy in 1953. Her apartment at 186 Vernon Avenue was five blocks north of the now famous magnolia. When Carthan died on April 23, 1984, the New York Times obituary described her as “the ‘tree lady’ of Brooklyn.”
The “tree lady” moniker came about after Carthan moved to a tree-lined block in Brooklyn. She recalled to the Times that within a decade of moving to Vernon Avenue, the block had only three of the original trees remaining.
What factors accounted for this dramatic loss in tree canopy? A likely scenario was the combination of natural stand decline and municipal disinterest in replacing street trees in a redlined neighborhood. Although the formal practice of redlining emerged in the 1930s, its repercussions are still experienced today. If you are poor and racialized as a minority, your community has fewer well-funded schools and hospitals, you live among more impervious concrete, and your landscapes have less biological diversity. Research shows that redlined neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy—those given D or “hazardous” ratings by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation—“have on average ~23% tree canopy cover today.”
The state of nature on her block spurred Carthan to reach out to fellow residents to make a change. Downsides to trees, like leaf litter, initially made them a hard sell. Only seven neighbors showed up in response to her postcard campaign, but they formed the T&T Vernon Block Association in 1964 (T&T stands for Tompkins and Throop Avenues).
Carthan made the connection between T&T and TNT or dynamite, explains Ena McPherson, a 20-year resident, gardener, and activist in the neighborhood. Recognizing the power of the Black community to make change was “the essence of the movement” Carthan seeded in Bed-Stuy, says McPherson.
One of Carthan’s early initiatives was to finance tree replacement. The group organized a fundraising barbecue; at $1.25 per plate, they raised $200 in 1965. “They called me ‘tree nut’ and ‘tree idiot,’ but old age prevailed,” she told the Times. Four new trees were planted on the block. The block association held a second barbecue fundraiser in 1966, and this time Carthan invited NYC Mayor John Lindsay.
Mayor Lindsay may have been keen to be on the ground in Bedford-Stuyvesant because of ongoing turmoil in the neighborhood, including a large fight that took place about two blocks from Carthan’s apartment in July 1966. This unrest had its roots in systemic disinvestment in people and place, and was a microcosm of what was happening citywide.
Carthan responded by focusing on tree planting, stewardship, and ecological literacy. She is credited with starting the City’s tree matching program in 1966. If a block association planted four trees, then the Parks Department would plant six more. Carthan’s organizing acumen and charisma grew the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Association, a group of 100 block associations that planted ginkgo, sycamore, honey locust, and elm trees in the community. You can still see some of these legacy trees in the neighborhood.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Mayor Lindsey budgeted $1.2 million dollars for tree planting and maintenance in 1967. McPherson argues that Carthan’s tree planting initiative in Bed-Stuy was also the inspiration for Bloomberg’s MillionTreesNYC program.
Carthan knew the trees would not thrive without dedicated stewards, especially young children and teenagers. She formed the Neighborhoods Tree Corps in 1971, arguably another first in New York’s urban forestry timeline, with a New York State Council on the Arts grant. With block association greening movement underway, Carthan turned her attention to a single tree, the large, old Southern magnolia on Lafayette Avenue.
Carthan became aware of the magnolia on her daily bus commute, says McPherson. The “derelict” condition of the adjacent brownstones made them suitable for the Model Cities program, a Johnson-era War on Poverty program that “destroyed history by taking down old buildings,” asserts McPherson.
The proposed razing of the adjacent brownstones would have placed the tree at grave risk. To save it would cost $7,000 for a supporting wall or $20,000 to purchase the building behind the tree. Carthan created the Magnolia Tree Committee and got a commitment from the New York Horticultural Society to match money they raised. The committee raised enough to build a wall, but Carthan went a step further by advocating for landmark status for the Southern magnolia.
The Landmarks Commission voted unanimously in favor, though opinions at the hearing were split between tree preservationists and those who wanted more housing in a neighborhood with few good options. Carthan also negotiated the purchase price of the three surrounding brownstones from $25,000 to $1,200. These brownstones became the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in 1972.
Today, the Southern magnolia at 679 Lafayette is thriving. McPherson points to the resilience of this tree, which was not expected to survive. The magnolia is channeling Carthan’s life and work, McPherson says: “Surviving and rising.”
The Magnolia Tree Earth Center is not doing as well. The center is unable to afford necessary repairs, and risks losing the buildings. I visited the site in February, and was saddened to see the state of the center and the adjacent mural. It is hidden behind wooden walls to prevent deteriorating structures from falling onto the sidewalk, though the walls aren’t tall enough to hide the crown of the magnolia.
Hattie Carthan was a trailblazer, says Ena McPherson, and I agree. While Rachel Carson was sounding the alarm about environmental hazards in suburban landscapes, Hattie Carthan was doing the same thing in New York City. The Magnolia Tree Earth Center deserves better. McPherson recommends fixed funding from the city, akin to what happened with the Weeksville Heritage Center in 2020. Politicians and community members have come together to raise urgently needed funds, and a GoFundMe was recently launched with a $350,000 goal.
The mural should also be restored, and historic signs installed to honor the magnolia and Hattie Carthan’s former home at 186 Vernon Avenue. The stories and successes of Black women must be preserved and emphasized as a crucial part of American environmental history.
To support the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, visit magnoliatreeearthcenter.org.