Ethel Granger McDowell Earley Clark (27 February 1899–22 September 1976), civic leader and garden club founder, was born in Roanoke and was the daughter of Phoebe Ragland Granger and William Granger, a laborer on the railroad. Her parents had ten other children. She attended school locally at least through the elementary level. On 12 February 1916, she married David McDowell, a laborer from North Carolina. They did not have any children and for most of the following decade, she lived alone or with her parents and worked as a cook. She obtained an uncontested divorce on 18 October 1927 on the grounds of desertion.
On 17 November 1929, in Roanoke, she married James Earley, a widowed railway hostler for the Norfolk and Western Railroad. They had no children. They lived in an attractive home with a large yard, and she was listed in the 1930 census as a homemaker with no occupation. During that decade, Ethel Earley established herself in American horticulture history as the first president of the nationally influential Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia. A self-taught master gardener, she was a skilled flower show judge and horticultural educator. Earley began her garden club career as a leader of the Big Lick Garden Club, so-called from the original name of the city. The club attracted numerous members and became an engine of community improvement. She served as president of Big Lick Garden Club from 1930 to 1938 and again in 1939–1940 and in 1951–1953. The gardening women's beneficial beautification activities led the city council to donate an old post office facility, which the club converted into a community center. Working directly with the Chamber of Commerce, Earley and the club took charge of weed elimination in vacant lots and alleys in the city's Black section later known as Gainsboro and collaborated with the white president of the Roanoke Valley Garden Club to beautify the new highway entrance near the neighborhood. Thanks to the work of the Black women's garden clubs, city officials in Roanoke began to improve street conditions in segregated neighborhoods.
In 1931 Earley invited Hampton Institute horticulturalist Asa C. Sims to lecture on landscaping at her home. Impressed by Earley's accomplishments, he invited her to attend the founding meeting of the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia. Eighteen club representatives met at Hampton Institute (later Hampton University) on 21–22 April 1932. William Mason Cooper of Hampton's Extension Service was a supervisor and Sims served as the state advisor. Earley reported on the Big Lick Garden Club's impact on Roanoke, and the members present elected her the first state president. She was reelected to a second one-year term in 1933. By 1942 the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia had grown from seven chapters to sixty-five, and by 1955 more than one hundred clubs from across the state had joined. Annual conferences featured local mayors and dignitaries, botany experts from Virginia State College (later Virginia State University) and Hampton Institute, as well as lecturers from the National Park Service.
Through the leadership of Earley and other officers, the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia provided "effective programs for community improvement, opportunities for leadership by women," and furnished examples of "interracial cooperation," as noted approvingly by a writer in Hampton's Southern Workman. Club members beautified neighborhoods and increased property values in racially segregated neighborhoods whose residents were denied the loans and financial support that white homeowners received, encouraged home and school garden initiatives in food deserts, and urged members to register and vote. The Negro Garden Clubs built interracial cooperation into its mission, and its chapters bridged racial gaps by planning and hosting interracial garden club events during the Jim Crow age of segregation. The Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia facilitated networking, artistic expression, and education for women who were ordinarily excluded from such opportunities. In 1955 the Roanoke Tribune celebrated their work by noting that "the efforts of this organization can be felt all over the State of Virginia. Wherever there are garden clubs there is beauty." The Southern Workman agreed that "this movement, simple in its inception, has in many instances become the center of community progress" and called it contagious. Indeed, as women gardeners moved from Virginia, they transplanted flourishing club networks in other states.
Beginning in the 1940s, Earley worked as a dietician and cafeteria manager at Gainsboro's Gilmer Avenue Elementary School, a brick Italianate building constructed in 1885 that was a central fixture of the community. As a cafeteria manager, she served more than 180 children nutritious meals every day and opened a new cafeteria in 1946, which featured the latest equipment. She also dedicated herself to professionalizing food service in Virginia. At a meeting with other cafeteria staff members at Virginia State College in 1953, Earley was elected the founding vice president of Section II of the Virginia School Food Service Association. She was elected president in 1957. She regularly represented the group at national food service conferences. After attending the 1954 national convention in Florida, Earley shared a report on best practices with members of the House of Delegates. She also participated in the Cafeteria Five, in which Roanoke school food service professionals met to socialize and share knowledge gleaned from workshops and conventions.
Earley remained active in local affairs throughout the 1950s and served her community's practical needs as a notary public. She supported the temperance movement, encouraged early literacy as a member of the Gainsboro Branch Library reading club, and financially supported the Lula Williams Branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), which assisted Black working women. Earley was an officer of the Thrift Art Club and belonged to the Ladies Auxiliary of Dunbar Post 1444 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She was clerk of the board of trustees for Hill Street Baptist Church, where she also served as president of the flower club. Earley supported the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in 1950 joined her reading club members in writing state legislators to support civil rights legislation in Virginia.
Widowed on 1 January 1957, at age sixty-one she married Roanoke resident Claude Lee "Cordie" Clark on 4 December 1960. He was a veteran of World War I, a retired coal miner, and a sixty-six-year-old widower at the time of the marriage. He died on 16 June 1972. Ethel Granger McDowell Earley Clark died at a Salem nursing home on 22 September 1976 following a stroke. She was buried beside her third husband at C. C. Williams Memorial Park in Roanoke.
Delayed Birth Certificate, Roanoke City, 11 June 1956 (with birth date and parents' names), Virginia Department of Health (VDH), Richmond; first and second marriages in Marriage Register, Roanoke City (1916, 1929), Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS), Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; BVS Divorce Record, 18 Oct. 1927 (with variant 23 Feb. 1916 date of first marriage), VDH; third marriage in Certificate of Marriage, Roanoke City, VDH; Big Lick Garden Club, Roanoke, Virginia, 1930–1956 (n.d.); Norfolk Journal and Guide, 12 Dec. 1931, 30 April, 7, 14 May 1932, 27 May 1933, 16 June 1934, 28 Jan. 1939, 11 Aug. 1945, 16 Mar. 1946, 25 June 1949, 4 May 1950, 1 July 1950 (portrait), 27 Nov. 1954, 3 Aug. 1957; Roanoke Tribune, 27 June 1953, 1 Aug. 1953, 11 June 1955 (second quotation), 8 Sept. 1956; Mrs. V. T. Schroeder, "Why Garden Clubs?" Southern Workman 68 (1939): 110, 112 (first and third quotations); death notices in Roanoke Times and Roanoke World-News, both 24 Sept. 1976 (both identify Lacy Royster, of Columbus, Ohio, a family relation with whom she was close, as her son).
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Meredith Henne Baker.
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