It’s a scene not common in urban Charlotte – a group of African American men and boys digging into the dark, rich earth to grow fresh vegetables. But in a small, county-owned park just off Beatties Ford Road, members of The Males Place have been planting a community garden each spring for several years now.
The garden is not unique in its basic function – to supply fresh produce in a low-income pocket of Charlotte where fresh produce is too often scarce. But look closer. Past the tiny plants that, with summer’s sun and due time, will yield a harvest of okra, eggplants, tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupes, squash, cucumbers, zucchinis and a variety of herbs.
Look over there. See the sign announcing the Dogon section of the garden. And over there, another sign announcing the Zulu section, and the Ashanti section, and the Nubian section — each quadrant in honor of a great African kingdoms.
And standing there in the middle, in remembrance of African ancestors, is a “bottle tree,” each of its nine branches holding an indigo-colored bottle, a tribute to the nine black men and women killed by a white gunman in the Charleston church massacre of 2015.
Reggie Singleton, who directs The Males Place, said the garden is meant to teach the boys, who are known as “warriors,” about their African American heritage and its link to slavery in America. And in doing so, he said, he and the other adult leaders (“elders,” they are called) hope to groom their young charges (ages 12 to 18) into responsible men and strong, black leaders.
“One of the things we want to inculcate into these young boys is that men provide, men protect, and men guide their communities,” Singleton said on an April afternoon, a picture-perfect day when the garden was just beginning to take shape for a new season of growing. “And providing food is one of the most basic necessities that we, as men, must provide.”
A portion of the crop grown on the plot is eaten by the boys and their immediate families. The rest is given to residents in the nearby community, especially to women and seniors.
How it all began
The Males Place, which has been around for decades, got its start as a Mecklenburg County Health Department reproductive clinic for men, created to dispense information and condoms in hopes of reducing the rate of teen pregnancy in the black community. When Singleton joined in 1993, he realized that reproductive health was only part of what his clients really needed.
“You have to be developmental and to include the life skills,” he said. “There are other things we need to be equally concerned about.”
In 2010, The Males Place became its own thing, with Singleton at the helm, closely aligned but separate from the county. And thee years ago, it gained its own nonprofit status.
Singleton, a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up picking food crops on one of the Sea Islands near Charleston, S.C., described The Males Place as a “manhood training program.”
“We believe we guide them trough manhood,” he said. “That’s our motto.”
Singleton said working the soil to grow and provide food for others not only teaches the boys responsibility, it also connects them with the past.
A program steeped in history
History – proud African history — is ingrained in nearly everything the warriors learn from their elders.
In 2010, the organization took a group of boys on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Ghana, in west Africa. And each year, much closer to home, the boys are taken on an “enrichment trip” to learn about the Civil Rights Struggle in the Deep South. This year’s trip, to Alabama, will include stops in Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery.
Ryan Gaines, 17, a junior at Independence High School, said the garden has taught him the value of fellowship, patience and listening.
“Everybody doesn’t think the same,” he said. “When you get a whole bunch of people and they’re all working together, you’re going to have differences, but you have to work together. It’s all teamwork out here.”
Mohammad Powell, 16, who attends the Military & Global Leadership Academy at Marie G. Davis and is president-elect of The Males Place, said he likes the connection the garden forges between the boys and their history as African Americans.
“It’s what slaves used to do,” he said. “I like that I’m doing some of the same things, but sort of in a positive way. We’ve taking this food and providing it to the community around us.”
Singleton said the garden is an inspiration not only for the boys who plant and nurture it but also to some of the women and men who live nearby and share in its bounty.
“We have old ladies who come up here, and they line up all around this place,” he said. “And as these plants grow, they are watching them. Some are meditating, and you see the cathartic affect of watching this garden grow, and to see these young black males working… Many of them are inspired by that, and they express that to these boys.”
Back to the future
Planting and harvesting, even on a small scale, wasn’t something Singleton ever saw himself doing in adulthood, especially back in his Sea Island days, when he worked in the fields because he had to.
“I recall being out in the sun in those 100-degree temperatures in Charleston as a boy – the mosquitoes and snakes – and deciding that if I was ever able to get out of here, that I would never set foot back in the field again,” he said.
But time has a way of changing minds. Reshaping perceptions. Shifting priorities.
“I soon realized, years later, as I had been mentoring young people, that the key to recapturing our young people is to re-introduce them back to the earth, back to the soil,” Singleton said.
Singleton said The Males Place is currently in talks to find a larger-scale farm, somewhere in Chester, S.C. But for now, he said, those talks are tentative.
In addition to providing more food, he said, a larger farm could provide vocational training and employment opportunities.
“These are young, black farmers here,” he said. “We see the honor and dignity of growing food.”
He added: “We believe that what we’re producing here is a model of a great farm. We believe and pray that this is a model of black male excellence and hope that it counteracts the negative images that are oftentimes associated with black males.”