Born enslaved with the odds stacked against him, Henry Kirklin became one of the best-known plant authorities of his era.
In time, he earned an enduring reputation as a gardener, entrepreneur, internationally recognized horticulturist and perhaps the first Black instructor at MU.
When he died in 1938, he was buried in the Columbia Cemetery, where his grave remained unmarked for 82 years. Until this week.
During a celebration Friday, the long-awaited marker was placed on Kirklin’s grave by his admirers from the Boone County Historical Society; Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture; Friends of the Historic Columbia Cemetery; Sharp End Heritage Committee; and MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
They had started a GoFundMe campaign in July 2019 that eventually raised $8,000 from at least 100 donors.
During the ceremony, James Whitt, chairman of the Sharp End Heritage Committee, noted Kirklin’s influence in horticulture and agriculture within the context of his background and education.
“Kirklin believed that no matter what your educational level was, based on your passion, from the work that you want to do, you can be successful,” he said.
Chris Campbell, executive director of the Boone County Historical Society, appealed to the community to continue recognizing Kirklin’s pioneering achievements.
“Let us all commit to doing more in this community,” he said. “Keep Henry Kirklin’s legacy alive.”
Kirklin was born to a slave mother in 1858 on the old James Bowling farm, 9 miles east of Columbia. After his mother “fetched” him out of slavery in 1863, he spent the rest of his life in Columbia as a free man.
He was introduced to plants as a boy, working for J.B. Douglas, a local nurseryman, for 30 cents a day. The next year he earned 40 cents, then 75 cents and finally $1 a day six years later.
For several years, he worked under two German gardeners who were experts in their field but severe taskmasters. At night, Kirklin would return after supper to review work he was afraid wouldn’t meet their approval.
Leaving that job at age 23, he became a greenhouse supervisor for the MU Horticulture Department, where his ability was quickly recognized and he began to teach lab classes.
This was when the university was segregated, so Kirklin had to teach plant propagation to his white students outdoors. He often described himself as “the only negro who ever taught at the University of Missouri.”
Eventually, he was put in charge of a division of the Horticultural Experiment Station at the university. Under his supervision, hundreds of students learned the art of pruning and grafting. A clipping from the Columbia Evening Missourian in 1919 called his knowledge of nursery work “unlimited.”
In 1880, Kirklin married Martha “Mattie” Moss, and they had two daughters and raised two nieces. Three years after they married, the Kirklins purchased half an acre on what was then the outskirts of Columbia to start a commercial fruit and vegetable farm.
Their house on West Switzler Street became home to Kirklin’s prospering gardening business, where he grew and sold fruits, vegetables and seedlings to Columbia residents.
He pushed a wheelbarrow or peddled produce door-to-door with baskets on each arm, eventually crossing town in a horse-drawn wagon. “Uncle Henry,” as he was known, recorded every transaction and built a reputation for fair dealing with his meticulous book-keeping.
His garden production was legendary. One year, he planted 2,300 lettuce heads; 700 cabbage plants; up to 3,000 sweet potato plants; rows of beets, spring onions, radishes, sweet and hot pepper plants; and tomatoes.
Another year, he raised 14,000 quarts of strawberries on a three-quarter acre plot, earning enough to build a house for one married daughter. The next year, he built another house from his strawberry proceeds for the second daughter.
Kirklin took pride in the quality of his plants. “There’s no humbuggery here,” he said in an article published in the Missourian.
He shrewdly saved seeds and selected only the best to start the next crop. During the winter, he studied seed catalogs and gardening books to learn the newest methods. One was overhead spray irrigation, which he adapted for his property in Columbia.
His ingenuity attracted the attention of farm journal editors all over the country, and he was often compared to Booker T. Washington, the Missourian reported.
William L. Nelson, a fellow farmer and state politician serving several terms between 1919 and 1943, said this about Kirklin: “While denied the privilege of much book learning, Henry Kirklin is yet an educated man. The school in which he was educated gives no diplomas, but its course is thorough and the work exacting.”
During the gravestone dedication Friday afternoon, Billy Polansky, executive director of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, described Kirklin’s gardening ability as unparalleled.
“I don’t want this headstone to mark the end of Mr. Kirklin’s recognition in this community,” Polansky said. “I want to see his name on street signs and on buildings.”
The center has started the Henry Kirklin Black Farmer Scholarship Fund to support aspiring farmers who want to start their own businesses.
“I want kids to learn about Henry Kirklin in school,” Polansky said, “and I want this headstone to be the beginning of a wave of recognition of his accomplishments.”