Roland Jefferson was no more than 7 or 8 when his father told him and his brother, “Tomorrow, I’m going to take you boys to show you something very special.”
Any time with their father, Edward Jefferson, was special. Edward worked at the veterans agency, where he’d started as a messenger, about the only job a black man could get with the federal government in the 1920s. When he’d finish there, he’d go to his second job, as a waiter.
But on Saturdays, he had a half-day off. And on that particular Saturday, Roland walked with his father and brother from their house near LeDroit Park to the streetcar stop. They got out at the Mall and walked the rest of the way. And then they saw it: a pink cloud floating just above the ground and reflected in the Tidal Basin. The cherry blossoms.
Roland had never seen anything so beautiful.
“My father tried, when he could, to make an annual trip to see them,” Roland remembered when I reached him by phone this week in Hawaii, where he lives now. “That lingered with me, even until today. I’m 88 years old now, and I still remember those trips.”
He remembers, too, his father’s garden, the zinnias, marigolds and snapdragons that were the pride of the neighborhood.
“I was very fascinated with what was happening,” Roland said. “One week, a seed would go in the ground, the next week little sprouts would be growing. My father sowed the seeds of plants in the ground, but he also sowed the interest in plants in me.”
Roland graduated from Dunbar High, served stateside in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and then enrolled at Howard University on the GI Bill. He majored in botany and graduated in 1950. It took him six years to find a job that used his skills, and even then, it was truly entry-level. “It was a little different for certain minority people to get work,” Roland said.
A friend told him about a place that was full of plants and seemed to be part of the federal government. Roland went to take a look. It was the National Arboretum. Arboretum officials didn’t have an opening for a botanist, but they offered him a job making plant labels.
Roland said he’d take it. “I thought this was a foot in the door.”
And so he made the little informational labels attached to the plants. The arboretum used plastic labels, but Roland noticed that within a year, they would fade and crack. He came up with a new method, using a type of metal he’d seen attached to the underside of airplanes.
“That was my first thing I did that got recognized,” he said. “Crab apples were second.”
The arboretum’s crab apple collection was a mishmash, with many specimens incorrectly labeled. Roland painstakingly pored through the records and teased out which ones had been propagated from understock and which were original growth.
In 1957, he was promoted to botanist, the first African American botanist at the National Arboretum. In 1972, he turned his attention to the beloved trees of his youth: the cherries in Potomac Park. He gathered 12 boxes of research material and in 1977 co-authored with Alan Fusonie a book recounting how the cherry trees came to Washington.
He became an international authority on flowering cherries, circling the globe on collecting expeditions — he met his wife, Keiko, in Japan— and eventually gathered almost a half-million seeds. Roland retired from the arboretum in 1987. Today he and Keiko live in Honolulu. It’s the perfect place for a botanist, like living in an arboretum.
I asked Roland if, when he closed his eyes, he saw in his mind the garden he worked with his father. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I can see the garden. I can see him walking through the cherry trees with me, too. He didn’t know much about the history of the trees. He didn’t have a high-powered job. But he still enjoyed those beauties. Even if a millionaire walked through those trees, they couldn’t have enjoyed it more than he did.”
My second annual Squirrel Week kicks off April 8. Send squirrel-related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Squirrel Query” in the subject line.
To read previous columns by John Kelly, got to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.