February 8, 2017
“We’ve already lost too many trees, houses and people…your community – you owe something to it. I didn’t care to run.” – Hattie Carthan
Welcome to Black History Month at the Brooklyn Collection. As most of you know, many great artists, leaders, educators, activists and politicians contributed to Brooklyn’s rich and indispensable Black history. Today we thought we would highlight one of those activists, Ms. Hattie Carthan, a community leader and environmentalist who forever changed Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Hattie Carthan moved to Brooklyn from Virginia, and was once described as “the best thing ever transplanted to Brooklyn.” Considering Brooklyn’s transplant rate, that’s quite a compliment!
In the 1960’s, when blockbusting swept through her neighborhood, Hattie did her best to encourage her neighbors to form a block association. Sadly only seven people showed up to that first meeting. Undeterred, Hattie rallied those neighbors into creating a back-to-school party for the children and the following summer she used the funds that were raised from a pig and chicken roast and bought something she knew the whole neighborhood would appreciate: trees.
Four saplings were planted on Vernon Avenue. But that was just the tip of the iceberg for Hattie. By the time she was finished Bedford-Stuyvesant would have 1,500 new trees spread across 100 blocks thanks to her perseverance.
Hattie’s focus was not just on new trees. She watched over the old trees, too, and in 1969 she set her sights on a 40 foot transplanted magnolia tree, originally planted in 1885. Hattie not only saved the tree from bulldozing, she also got the City of New York to designate the tree as an official city living landmark the following year.
But Hattie still wasn’t done! After saving the magnolia tree she set her sights on the three brownstones behind it and turned them into the Magnolia Tree Earth Center - a conservationist’s dream, with nature programs for school children, summer work study, programs for seniors, a vegetable garden, a research library and even on-the-job training. The Magnolia Tree Earth Center opened on September 18, 1980 when Hattie, by then known as the “Tree Lady of Brooklyn,” turned 80.
The following year, Hattie was presented with the Brownstone Revival Committee’s first annual Genesis Award. By then the Magnolia Tree Earth Center was considered an environmental education institute. From Hattie’s work blossomed the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Program.
Hattie Carthan passed away on April 23, 1984. Her tenacious spirit and hard work not only revitalized Bedford-Stuyvesant’s greenery, it also gave the community an environmental center that flourishes to this day. To honor her work, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Research Center created a hybrid yellow magnolia, which they named in her memory and planted during the ceremony to honor her life.
And because she persisted, Hattie’s 40 foot magnolia tree is still with us.
If you want to learn more about Hattie Carthan, please come visit the Brooklyn Collection or check out our Ephemera collection and clippings file.
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