In 1976, Flora Wharton opened floral design business Herb & Plants in Shaker Heights, a predominantly white suburb of Cleveland. "Whether I was getting push back from white people that were uncomfortable with me around or even some Black people that said I was trying to be white having my shop in Shaker Heights, I didn’t buy into it,” says Wharton. "My passion for plants was my purpose. Nothing and no one was going to stop me.” Here’s how she grew her success and self-confidence along with her beloved flowers.
Sara Bey: What first sparked your interest in plants and horticulture?
Flora Wharton: My mother named me Flora after her aunt Flora Bell, who was the first Black head nurse at University Hospital. She always used to tell me “flora means plant life,” so I was predestined to be a plant lover—it’s who I am! But my father Lewis Washington Wharton truly inspired me. He was from Clemmons, North Carolina and back in the day when he grew up, people grew their own food. So, we had a garden in our backyard when I was a girl and I always loved working in it. That was the way my father and I bonded. We grew tomatoes, cabbage, green beans, we would grow it all. My father was very popular in the Glenville area of Cleveland and he would help other Black families by giving them fresh vegetables to eat right. He was the first entrepreneur I ever knew. Everyone else worked for GM or big companies and my father had his own business as a builder and I was proud of that.
SB: Tell me about your shop: Was it difficult as a Black woman to build a business in what was then a wealthy, predominantly white area of Cleveland?
FW: A Black woman opening a plant shop in Shaker Heights was huge news. When I went to elementary school, it was Black and white kids together. When I went to junior high school, it all changed. All my [white] friends went to Cleveland Heights and we went to Glenville. I lived through that racial divide of the city. I never let that hold me back. I believe people are people. My husband was an artist and had a studio in Shaker Square, and told me that there were store spaces so I decided to open Herbs & Plants. Every major newspaper and local magazine came out and took my picture. After the articles came out, an executive from Cleveland Hopkins Airport came to the store and offered me the contract to provide and take care of all of the plants at the airport. So from the beginning, I had great press and that helped get the shop off the ground and nothing was going to stop me. Looking back it might have been more difficult than I allowed myself to realize but I stayed focused on my goal.
SB: Do you have any advice for young women who dream of opening their own business?
FW: First, you have to have courage because it is scary out here, especially for a Black American woman because we’re still disenfranchised in 2021. And people will try to take your joy, which is scary. Get rid of all the joy robbers and keep looking up even when you want to look down.
SB: There’s a movement amongst Black women today to “claim joy.” Is there a time when you had to do that?
FW: My husband used money to control me and one day I had a serious “a-ha” moment—I realized I had my own money! I was so used to being controlled, it didn’t occur to me that my business had become a success. I decided not to do what he told me and it became scary. He came into the plant store one day and said, “Come on, it’s time to go,” in a very controlling way and I knew I had to go on without him. As soon as I was able, I filed for divorce. I loved his talent but I loved me more.
SB: You were ahead of your time in your support for the LGBTQ+ community. Why was it important to you to be an advocate?
FW: I’m the type of person that thinks whatever you are and whoever you are, that’s wonderful. I don’t believe in people judging people. When you're born God makes you who he wants you to be. People will judge you for what you are, what you do, who you love—that is none of your business. You've got to live your own truth. I don't care what human beings think about me because I know what God loves.
SB: What’s next for you?
FW: I feel this opportunity to talk about my life has given me a new lease on life. I was starting to feel that when you get old, you become invisible. I didn’t think anyone could see me anymore. This experience has made me think anything is possible. I’d love to help people find the joy that comes from having a beautiful garden. I always want to be surrounded by beautiful flowers and plants.
About the Journalist and Photographer
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Credits: Cydni Elledge: Monica Morgan Photography
This story was created as part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites throughout 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the complete portfolio.
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