The legumes are one family that leaves the soil more enriched at the end of its tenure than it inherited at the beginning.
—Leah Penniman, Farming While Black
The name on the seed packet—purple Kingsessing—was familiar, like an old family name. We had amassed a stockpile of seeds over the years, expired leftovers from the community in northeast Georgia where we’d lived and worked for six-and-a-half years. A few winters back, we found a small farm to call our own, just half a mile away. At the first signs of spring in our new place, my husband and I began to turn over the soil. I shuffled through the envelopes of seeds, wondering if I could coax some growth out of any of them, especially these beans with a name that sounds like home. I can buy dry beans cheaper than I can grow them, but this planting would not be for food.
Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods and, for eleven years, the Kingsessing neighborhood was my home. On the map, it is shaped like a headless bird in flight. The bend of the wing is formed by train tracks that carry R-3 commuters and Amtrack trains downtown, and the wing tip is just above the piece of Cobbs Creek that snakes through Mount Moriah Cemetery. The Schuylkill River outlines the breast, and Bartram’s Garden, a historic botanical garden and public park, is a fifty-acre green patch on its belly. When the Quaker naturalist John Bartram built his home and garden along the river in 1728, all of Kingsessing was a sylvan retreat, a lush riparian environment with perfect soil for growing food. Although it was miles from the tight cobblestone streets of what we call Old City Philadelphia, Kingsessing is the oldest neighborhood in the city. Swedish settlers made their homes there in the 1640s, and before that, the Lenape people had been farming, fishing, hunting and trading there for innumerable generations—their oral history remembers the mastodons.
Although it was miles from the tight cobblestone streets of what we call Old City Philadelphia, Kingsessing is the oldest neighborhood in the city.
The Kingsessing Recreation Center is a nine-acre green rectangle where the wing meets the shoulder. Until 1913, it was the site of the Belmont Cricket Club. Now the number thirteen trolley stops with a squeal at every numbered street, past the playground, fields, tennis and basketball courts at the rec center, past row houses, store-front churches, beauty shops, and restaurants along Chester Avenue, which bends into Kingsessing Avenue as it winds its way out of the city. My older children learned to swim at the Kingsessing pool and to shout in unison at the command of the lifeguard: “No peein’ in the pool! No poopin’ in the pool! No runnin’ in the pool! No fightin’ in the pool!” When the city was trying to cut funding to libraries, I added my name to a class-action lawsuit to protect the Kingsessing Library, one of the buildings Andrew Carnegie designated in 1919 to be “used forever.”
I’m not from Philadelphia, but I was conceived near there, in a colonial farmhouse that once belonged to my grandmother’s friend, Layle Lane. Lane was born in 1898 in Marietta, Georgia, about a hundred miles east of where I live now. Her father was almost lynched for being a pastor and educator who talked and looked “too white.” Lane’s family joined the throng of African Americans who, beginning in the early twentieth century, left behind land and dreams in the American South for refuge in Northern cities. She became an activist and leader in the socialist party; she helped plan the first March on Washington in 1941. As a schoolteacher in New York City she wanted to start a farm camp for city kids. Her white-passing brother signed the deed to enable her to purchase land in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a northern suburb of Philadelphia. She named it La Citadelle, after the fort where General Toussaint Louverture secured liberty for Haiti.
Long after the camp had closed, my grandmother befriended Lane and frequently visited her land to escape the hot summer days in Philadelphia. As a boy, my dad joined his mother as she tended a small garden there. He told me his mother “didn’t know a thing about planting vegetables”—she just wanted to touch earth. Eventually, Lane sold the house and a parcel of the land to my grandparents.
For a few years in the mid-1970s my parents called Lane’s green retreat home; a Black man and a white woman making wooden cradles, planting seeds, growing a family that had only become legal less than a decade earlier. By that time, Lane had retired to Mexico. She died in February 1976. My sister was born that June, and two years later, in that old farmhouse where Lane had plotted out a small patch of farming and liberation, the small seed of my life began.
When I had grown to the size of a pear inside my mother, my family moved to rural Alabama, where I was born. My father worked for an organization that provides Black farmers with resources and support to retain land and sustain community. When I was two, my parents left Alabama—a landscape they recall as too hostile for our family to thrive—for Washington, DC, where we stayed until my older siblings and I graduated high school. Throughout my childhood, every family trip, all of my parents’ dreaming was wrapped around a search for a place in the country. It’s a long answer to the question, Where are you from?—conceived near Philadelphia, born in the rural South, raised in the city with a sense that I needed to get back to a lost green place.
The Philadelphia I visited as a child was three hours from home. It was my grandparents’ vast home in Mount Airy, my uncle’s grander home in Chestnut Hill, or my aunt’s rowhouse in Germantown, near where my father grew up. We would go downtown for Quaker meeting or for shopping at Wanamaker’s or out to Buck’s County to visit family friends.
I did not know Kingsessing until I was a young adult, when my first job after college brought me to the city. I rented the top of a four-story Victorian twin close to the Kingsessing neighborhood. One evening, I crawled onto the roof of that massive house with my soon-to-be husband to try and figure out the source of a leak. A light January drizzle misted our faces and the brown glow of streetlights made the neighborhood buzz with possibility. By October, Michael and I were married. We would return to that roof often, to watch meteor showers and the occasional flock of snow geese honk past the moon.
Kingsessing became home. We planted trees and welcomed children—one after another and another and another. We bought our first house on the 1100 block of Paxon Street, around the corner from the Kingsessing Recreation Center and Library. A couple from our church, Francis and Susan, moved onto the block with their teenage daughters so that we could share daily life: childcare and groceries, fresh baked bread and tools. It was here, in Kingsessing, near the corner of Fifty-First and Chester, that we planted tomatoes and peppers and built community. All the while, I dreamed about living in a quieter, greener place.
Years later, as Michael and I mulched and dug on the wide-open meadow in Georgia, that seed packet brought me back. I ached for our old Philadelphia neighborhood like it was a long-lost love. I would plant purple Kingsessing beans in the Georgia dirt, as an offering to the place we loved and left behind.
Long before Kingsessing was home to children with neatly cornrowed hair with beads and barrettes that clack as they walk down its blocks, it was Chinsessing. Because of the “King,” I had thought Kingsessing arrived with the British and was a word about dominion. It was only after I decided to plant Kingsessing beans in Georgia that I learned the Lenape word chinsessing means “a place where there is a meadow.” It was in this meadow place that the Lenni Lenape planted gardens with varieties of beans and corn that had traveled the Great Minquas trade route from Mexico to the east coast. Before coins and shells, before the idea of individual ownership, beans were a kind of money, and a way of staying connected to a place.
It was only after I decided to plant Kingsessing beans in Georgia that I learned the Lenape word chinsessing means “a place where there is a meadow.”
Purple Kingsessing beans began taking root in dusty Oklahoma gardens in the 1860s. The majority of the Lenape people had been violently uprooted and forced westward by European colonizers and then by the U.S. government, and they carried the beans with them. A small remnant of family farms in central Pennsylvania grew purple Kingsessing beans into the twentieth century. In the 1970s, seed collector William Woys Weaver received some Kingessing beans from Oklahoma to add to the ones he had acquired from Berks County, Pennsylvania. A few years ago, Weaver gave the purple beans to farmers at Bartram’s Garden, where they were rematriated to the neighborhood with the same name.
When my family lived in Philadelphia, Bartram’s Garden—which houses the longest surviving botanical collection in North America—was our free wooded sanctuary. We watched old men pull catfish from the river, toured the stone house with the hearth stove, saw foxes and deer—even a bald eagle once. In April 2005, when my daughter Zora was only a few weeks old, a fifteen-year-old girl was murdered there, her body found on the banks of the Schuylkill on a cold spring morning. It took me several months before I could walk Bartram’s Garden without skimming the shore for another body. The ancient ginkgo blanketed the ground in October gold.
With each murder of a teenager that hit closer to home—the nineteen-year-old shot at the rec center playground, the recent high-school graduate killed after the basketball tournament, another nineteen-year-old killed near Ms. Gloria’s house—my breath grew more shallow, my resolve to move to the country more deep. I didn’t tell my young children how the killings triggered memories from growing up in Washington, DC, when the nation’s capital was deemed “the murder capital of the world.” On our walks to the rec center, Zora created a ritual of hugging the teddy bear shrines, whispering softly to the weathered bear with cigarette burns in his matted fur, and I began plotting a path to green, green, and more green.
John Bartram’s son, William, had left Kingsessing to traverse the U.S. South, collecting stories and plants. His botanical journeys led him to Georgia, and my family inadvertently followed his path, not to collect plants but maybe to collect ourselves. In 2011, we moved, with our children ages one, three, six, and eight, to a Christian farm community dedicated to providing a soft landing to newly arrived refugees from Southeast Asia, Central Africa, and Central America.
While we learned to hunt and forage, to plant and harvest, several families from Burma and other former staff members settled into homes and land in the surrounding town. Over the years, it became clear to us that we felt a greater sense of belonging in that growing town network. Just when we knew that it was time to move on, the house and land of our dreams became available. As the Quakers say, “way opened.”
Layle Lane and her family never returned to their house and land in Georgia. I felt, when I signed the deed to our property—to a house built around the time that the Lanes left—that it was a small act of reclamation. We wanted to do some more healing on this land that had once been home to Creek people, enslaved and free African American people, land that had once been planted with cotton as far as the eye could see. Georgia is plenty haunted, but I was tired of running. As I held that envelope of expired Kingsessing beans, I took it as a sign. Beans migrate, people migrate, sometimes by choice, sometimes against their will. Some small remnant keeps producing, keeps making them what and who they are. Sometimes they find their way home.
Our last planting in Philadelphia, I was nine months pregnant with our fourth child and pushing a wheelbarrow toward our two-story end-of-the-row house on Paxon Street, my belly a pumpkin beneath my green flowery dress. Michael was carrying a pitchfork and shovel. Two-year-old Seraphina was in the wheelbarrow while seven-year-old Malachi and five-year-old Zora walked alongside us in overalls and rubber boots. We had just been working at the abandoned lot near Fifty-First and Chester: Michael planted discarded blue potatoes from the Mariposa Co-op, I scattered some lettuce seeds, weeded the strawberries we’d found growing there. The kids climbed the mulberry tree just coming into tender leaf. Zora hummed a little song and lay branches on the spot where we’d buried our cat, Prince.
As we neared our house, our neighbor across the street, Keith—I never knew his last name—was on his porch enjoying the spring evening. His dad lived around the corner and we would exchange hellos on his daily walks to and from the corner store. Keith’s little brother was the same age as our son, and they played together, wheeling bikes, skateboards, and scooters up and down the block. It had been a while since we’d seen Keith; he must have been arrested around the time the ATF raided his mom’s house with guns drawn, a swarm of police cars blocking both ends of our street, helicopter blades slicing the sky. It was a nice surprise to see him back home.
We hadn’t asked anything about the whys, we were just glad to see him again. “Y’all just keep producing!” he shouted out in affirmation of our growing family and gardening aspirations. We smiled and waved, taking it as a benediction. A great blue heron flew above us in the direction of the Schuylkill River and I knew the baby would come that week. Phoebe was born at home that Wednesday.
We left Kingsessing when Phoebe was one year old, in midsummer. Keith was dead, from murder; Francis was dead, from suicide; the house next door to theirs was a burnt shell from a fire that had luckily been extinguished before it consumed the whole block. We left behind a tangle of weeds and dreams, friendships that were still alive, houses that made me think of fire and ghosts, and we moved to Georgia.
A single word, Kingsessing, and a handful of black seeds in my palm became my holy sacrament, pleading with me to do something in remembrance. A late April rain had softened the fresh-tilled soil and the sun had baked it to a brown-sugar crumb. I pressed six long stakes into a circle to form a tepee. I try to avoid plants that need poles and trellises, preferring the ones who can take care of themselves—but I was building an altar, a vision of lavender-flowered green vines and purple beans. I hoped, by planting them, that I might conjure up the good and lay to rest the bad memories of those years in Kingsessing.
I scavenged the old barn and found a length of green-coated clothesline, which I wrapped and tucked until the poles held together like a childish bouquet.
In my first attempt, I held the sticks together with wisteria vines, wanting to use all-natural fibers. The next day, after a stormy wind blew across the meadow, I found that my structure had fallen apart. I scavenged the old barn and found a length of green-coated clothesline, which I wrapped and tucked until the poles held together like a childish bouquet. We had once harvested an abundant crop of brightly colored plastic barrettes and elastic hair balls from a raised bed in the plot on Chester Avenue, sifting the plastic through our fingers to make room for seeds. That bright green wire atop my bean trellis seemed the perfect thing to hold it all together.
During Phoebe’s first spring, life with a new baby made me more insular, less in tune to the people on my block. I let my world contract to the survival and sustenance of the six people within our home. When I pushed the double stroller down the block toward the Kingsessing Library for story time, or to the fruit truck for dollar bags of produce, I did not notice Keith’s absence.
We drove South that summer. My older brother hosted a family reunion in New Orleans, where he had moved post-Katrina, and we visited the farm community in Georgia where we’d eventually move. We brought home a cooler full of blueberries; the memory of our children holding turtles and chicks, of a hummingbird hovering just above my head. On the way back, we stayed with neighbors from Paxon Street who had recently moved down to Virginia. The kids splashed in their pool, Tyrone grilled burgers and Roxanna asked me if I’d heard about Keith. I hadn’t heard. His kidnapping and murder had not made the news.
The break-in happened on Phoebe’s first Halloween, a Sunday. I biked home from church with her on a blue-sky afternoon, while Michael towed Seraphina in the trailer and kept pace with the older kids on their bikes. I made it to the house before them. I plopped Phoebe on the living room floor, pulled off her cloth diaper, then went toward the back to grab a clean one off the clothesline in our concrete slab of a yard. The exterior kitchen door was gaping open; it looked like a solid kick had popped the lock from the splintered door frame. Not knowing if anyone was in the house, I scooped up my half-naked baby and ran outside. I called the police, then I called Michael, then I called Susan, who came out and held me like I’d held her the morning Francis died. “I have to move,” I told her.
“You can leave,” she sighed. We had been there for one another for five years and we could let each other go.
When Michael got to the house, he went inside. A few minutes later, the police arrived. One drew his weapon before he even touched my front steps. “Don’t kill anyone!” I shouted. “My husband is in there. I just wanted to report a break-in. Jesus! Don’t shoot anyone in my house!”
I was hit with a wave of terrible comfort that the officer probably would not fire his gun within a split second of seeing Michael, a tall, bearded white man in a button-down shirt. Fingerprints in the dust on our computer screen indicated that whoever had been there had likely run out just as I had walked in. Nothing was stolen. Michael spent Sunday night patching together a functional door frame, securing a new lock. I told him I was ready to go to Georgia.
Michael would tell it differently. We had been thinking about rural life for years. He’d say it was our longing for different rhythms of work and community, a shared desire to live closer to the land and the sources of our food. All of this is true. When people move there is usually a pull, but there is often also a push.
Without a farmer’s almanac, I turn to the internet to learn how and when to plant the purple Kingsessing in Georgia soil; I learn the bean’s meandering journey of exile and return. I find myself searching for more. I search for the circumstances surrounding Keith’s disappearance and murder. I never knew his last name. I don’t even know if Keith was his legal first name. I come up blank when I hunt for a news report or obituary. I scroll through a list of the 306 people murdered in Philadelphia in 2010, the year Phoebe was born. I zero in on the murders between early April and mid-July: Michael, Saideen, Jamal, Kevin, Kenneth, Ali, Howard, Ebenezer, Brahkim, Solomon, the list is so long. One can sort by method: gun, knife, hands, other; by gender: mostly male; or by age: infant to eighty-two. No Keith.
I walk from the blue of my computer to my green garden. I press each black seed into the earth. We live in a place with a wide meadow, bordered by blueberry bushes and loblolly pines and a creek that leads to the South Fork of the Broad River. Within a week, my purple Kingsessing bean plants emerge from the warm dirt with bowed heads, like monks in prayer. They begin their winding ascent. The great blue herons are nesting. I carry Keith’s last words to us as an observation and a command. They settle on my skin like dew. “Y’all keep producing.” I want to make him proud