Partnership of Neighborhood Residents and Black Farmers Brings “Cash Crop” of Indigo 

A few weeks ago, on September 8, 2023 in the final days of this summer’s record-breaking heatwave, residents of West Baltimore’s Upton Community gathered to welcome regional officers of Truist Bank to celebrate a critical investment in what is known as the Natural Dye Initiative (NDI). The $300,000 grant is in support of the purchase, renovation of a building owned by the Upton Planning Committee, Inc as well as the adjacent fields on formerly vacant lots where indigo plants are farmed for processing and subsequent sale for a wide range of commercial and artistic uses.

As part of this collaborative public-private partnership, additional support from Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development funds, NDI is purchasing indigo processing equipment and programming activities will be funded by the Maryland State Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Photo Credit: Christopher Myers

The Natural Dye Initiative will create job opportunities in addition to training and symposia for fiber arts professionals. Recently, the group hosted the first in a series of “Indigo Arabber” Community Dye Events, at which participants learned the history of indigo and were able to design and dye tee-shirts in vats mounted onto a horse drawn Arabber cart. 

Wanda Best, Executive Director of the Upton Planning Council noted, “We are so glad to leverage Truist’s support to build on our efforts in revitalizing West Baltimore. Upton Planning Committee has long been dedicated to finding innovative approaches for inspiring reinvestment in this community. We are ever encouraged by the support of our government and now private sector partners.”

“Truist’s purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities and we are committed to demonstrating our purpose in West Baltimore by serving clients and funding programs that will help this community thrive,” said Truist Market President, Jay Turakhia. “Partnering with organizations to bring programs like the Natural Dye Initiative to life will have a tremendous economic impact for West Baltimore, providing job training and creation that can lead to greater financial stability and wealth creation for individuals and families.”

Other partners in this endeavor includes: Neighborhood Fiber Company, indigo artist Kibibi Ajanku, the Space for Creative Black Imagination and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore’s Small Farms Outreach Program. These groups will be instrumental in the development of jobs, farms, small businesses and community and cultural resources. 

The group is advised and assisted by African American farmers from Baltimore City, Eastern Shore of Maryland, South Carolina (Low Country), and Piedmont North Carolina that will deliver their leaves for processing and marketing. Members of the Maryland State partners committee include the Maryland Dept of Agriculture, MARBIDCO, Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church; and the University of Maryland Extension Service. NDI has begun consultation with the University of Maryland Environmental Science Center and the University of Baltimore on water quality standards. 

The processing and operations facility will be housed in the former Harriet Beecher Stowe School located in the 1300 Block of Argyle Street. Plans for the building are being drafted by the Neighborhood Design Center and Sigma Development will manage the construction scheduled for completion Midyear of 2024. 

Adrian Harpool
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