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Nashville Voices: Nella Pearl Frierson

August 13, 2020

As we round the corner to our virtual opening on August 18, we're capping off our Nashville Voices series with one last story - a powerful testimonial from a powerful woman.

It's been an honor to make this journey to August 18 with you. See you at 11:30 a.m. Central that day on Nashville Public Library's YouTube channel.

We're looking forward to having the loudest celebration of the summer with you.

Nella Pearl Frierson

photo by Nina Covington

Nestled north of downtown along the Cumberland River is a neighborhood called Brooklyn Heights. This small pocket of Nashville is home to Lock One Park, the American Baptist College, and a diverse community of residents both new and established. In the heart of the neighborhood – right at the corner of Haynes and Meade – an inconspicuous lot of land overflows with every vegetable and herb imaginable. And to its neighbors, these rows of raised beds and melon patches are better known as the Brooklyn Heights Community Garden.

In a city where new buildings and developments crop up daily, this modest veggie garden stays firmly rooted, providing fresh produce for anyone who wants it. But the picturesque plot wasn’t raised overnight. It took an entire community coming together to create Brooklyn Heights Community Garden (BHCG), and as the garden celebrates 10 successful years of operation, its longevity can be attributed to its fearless leader, Nella Pearl Frierson – or as most people affectionately call her, Ms. Pearl.

An Early Love of Gardening

Born and raised in Nashville, Ms. Pearl was never far from someone with a green thumb. Her grandparents, the late Annie and “Papa George” Davis, had a farm south of the city in Columbia. It was there she first learned how to care for okra, and by the age of seven already knew the best practices for weeding and tending veggies. Back in Nashville, her late mother, Ida Bruce Frierson, was famous for her beautiful flower gardens outside their home. But as the fifth born of ten children, only the front yard was reserved for Ida’s horticultural eye.

“Our yard was beyond beautiful in the front, but in the back it was catastrophic; we never had grass,” Ms. Pearl joked as she recalled all the children playing daily in the backyard.

But it wouldn’t be until years after relocating to Brooklyn Heights that she would revisit a talent passed through generations.

Planting Her Roots

Ms. Pearl moved with her five daughters to the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood – then called Scruggs Brooklyn Heights – in 1998. Determined to give her daughters the best life possible, Ms. Pearl settled her family into the house where she lives to this day. The area immediately appealed to her because of the quick access to nature, and as she settled into the community she also fell in love with her fellow community members – many of which still live in the neighborhood. Plus, Haynes Middle School – where her grandchildren now attend school – is two streets over, so she’s never too far away from what matters to her most.

photo by Nina Covington

A Need for Change

For all that Ms. Pearl loved about her new neighborhood, it wasn’t without its problems. Shortly after she and her daughters settled into Brooklyn Heights, two rival gangs also moved into the area and began recruiting local high schoolers. Seeing gang members approach her daughters and their friends, Ms. Pearl quickly opened her home as a place for all the kids to hang out after school. The house became the go-to destination for kids in the community, a safe space where she could keep an eye on them – and keep them engaged mentally and physically.

One of these students, Brin Brin, was a star high school athlete who frequently visited her home to take part in the various challenges she created for the teens. He would tell Ms. Pearl about the gangs, the different ways they tried to recruit him, and how he would always try to turn them down. It wasn’t long after that he was killed by one of the gangs during an initiation.

“After that I said ‘No more vigils. I’m not going to any more funerals.’ I gotta do something while the blood is running warm in my veins.” —Ms. Pearl

After nights of praying and reflecting on what she could do to help bring her community together after this horrific murder, she began dreaming about a garden in the vacant lot across the street. At first she didn’t think much about the dreams, but their continued presence became too strong to ignore. She found out who owned the property, explained her vision to the owner, and secured the lot at a discounted rate. By the end of 2010, Ms. Pearl broke ground on what would become the Brooklyn Heights Community Garden.

Over the past ten years, Ms. Pearl’s dream has bloomed into a fruitful reality. The Brooklyn Heights Community Garden has become the anchoring landmark of the neighborhood, with its rows of raised beds and overflowing flora welcoming locals and visitors alike.

But BHCG is not just a local source for veggies – it’s a destination for purpose.

The Patience of a Farmer

photo by Thandiwe Shiphrah

BHCG is changing people’s lives, and sometimes that work requires patience one can learn only from growing a plant from seed.

“You nurture yourself as you nurture the plants. We’re not that different. We’re basically made of the same elements, so we are plants!” —Ms. Pearl

Ms. Pearl understands that everyone requires different approaches, and whether they pick one weed or one thousand, she welcomes everyone to the garden. She recalled one neighbor who spent years avoiding the garden, but she continued to invite him whenever he passed by. After agreeing to help her occasionally weed, he slowly began to take ownership of specific areas of the garden.

“He became sober because of the garden. He would weed the garden, and he would be on his knees saying some prayers,” recalled Ms. Pearl. “He told me, ‘This has given me life.’ It gave him purpose.”

And just as BHCG has changed over the past decade, so has the neighborhood. Nashville’s growth has impacted every corner of the city, and new residents continue to move in and develop sections of this tight-knit community. Multiple real estate developers have made offers on the garden property, but Ms. Pearl has held strong in keeping BHCG as the heart of the neighborhood.

And while purpose is one of their main exports, they still grow a ton of veggies. She is quick to list off everything the garden currently offers: “Tomatoes, garlic, beets, greens, turnip greens, spinach, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, banana peppers, bell peppers, red peppers, eggplant…” the list goes on and on.

Open Gates, Open Doors

photo by Thandiwe Shiphrah

With fresh produce in hand and an uplifting perspective, Ms. Pearl’s work goes far beyond the garden’s boundaries. She is also a housing advocate and opens her home to people who can’t find housing. She is currently developing a program for those who need shelter to live in the house that currently sits on BHCG’s plot, allowing residents to serve as the on-site gardeners who will then train to become master gardeners. She is also extending BHCG to Shiloh Interdenominational Church, where they are working with Reverend Harold Shannon to develop a fruit orchard in the back of the property.

Ms. Pearl sees the whole picture. Where the rest of us might see an abandoned lot, she sees a bountiful garden; and where the rest of us now see that garden, she sees the years of work and the culmination of a community working at its best. It’s the dedicated leaders such as Ms. Pearl who create the bright spots in our neighborhoods, and her open door approach, backed by a love for people, has allowed the garden’s bounty to extend far beyond what you can eat.

“When we get back to community we get back to loving thyself, and loving other selves. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you must. Just get busy.”
–Ms. Pearl

Growing our National Community

Ms. Pearl is changing her community and those within it every day, whether through neighborhood gardening, housing advocacy, or being a light for others. As we reflect on what community means in an ever-changing landscape, we asked Ms. Pearl three questions about voting, the next generation of women, and what she hopes for the future.

What do you want to be different for the next generation of women?
When it comes to the hiring and payment for work: let their merits, knowledge, education, work ethics, and passion be the only tools used to determine if they are qualified for the job at hand! Do not let them get looked over or slighted because of their gender. I want women to be bold, be true to themselves, have fun, be a light, let their guards down, and know they are enough and that they will be respected and appreciated!

What does the right to vote mean to you?
It means I am a part of the decision-making of policies and changing old, outdated laws that no longer serve society as a whole. I will be lending my voice to ensure better healthcare, fair housing, that low income communities are not over taxed, equal educational opportunities in low income neighborhoods, and my voice will help bring about awareness to the food apartheid deserts in low income communities!

What form of power do you not have that you wish you did?
At this junction in my life there is no form of power that I don't have! All the power that I need is within me; I am being the change that I speak of! I am stepping up and learning about how politics works, I am training on how I can get young people of color registered to vote, I am on Zoom meetings on how all humans can unite to heal ourselves, which will heal the nations!

photo by Thandiwe Shiphrah

Author's Note: NPL presents facts as shared with us by those featured in our stories. While we make every effort to verify any information shared, these posts should be used for entertainment and reference only.

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Matt runs email marketing for NPL, as a Marketing & Communications team member.


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