A Taste of Durham: An Interview with Eddie Clement Swan of Motherland Organics

Eddie Clement Swan, is a name that bears repeating, not because of complications in pronunciation, but simply because it is a name that has made its way around Durham more times than Wool E. Bull runs laps. Alas, you may not know this name, but I bet you know Motherland Organics. Motherland Organics is a local brand that produces an organic Ginger Lemonade and Turmeric Ginger Lemonade, right here in Bull City. Though this product could be described as “The Taste of Durham” for many reasons (and should be on the label in my humble opinion) it and Eddie, much like most of Durham’s history and mystique, may be unknown to both outsiders and Durhamites alike.

Eddie Clement Swan, (I did say the named bears repeating, didn’t I?), came to Durham on a popular route, probably one of the few ways Eddie, the founder and owner of Motherland Organics, went with a crowd. Eddie came to Durham from the Big Apple 30 years ago and when asked why visit such a small southern city when already a successful entrepreneur in NYC, Eddie’s eyes smiled while laughing gleefully at what must be a common question, or perhaps a question too complex that an answer is not freely given, as my inclinations lead me to believe.

Simply put, Eddie followed clients to Durham. Eddie was working with big names in Black community, one might say literal Black history, and Durham, as many should know, is wealthy in connections to Black history and success. Durham wasn’t Eddie’s first stop. First, Eddie came to Raleigh and immediately felt that our big capital sister city didn’t pass the vibe check, as the kids are inclined to say. But Durham, “Durham had it going on,” Eddie shared. Eddie loved the culture, the people, the community, “the unity”, as Eddie put it. “That was 30 years ago”, Eddie continued to laugh, but quickly realized that there is a reality that we have lost, or are losing, that Durham.

16 years ago Eddie moved South and has loved all that makes Durham, so Durham. Eddie spoke of Durham they way real estate brochures for apartment complexes and websites for new ambitious small businesses popping up downtown are speaking of Durham. These businesses less enamored with the energy and the unity Eddie remembers, but really clamoring to find success in the new gold rush of our time. “Gentrification”, put plainly by a person no one could call plain, gentrification is what Eddie, like many others in our city, point to when we think of what’s happened to Durham’s energy.

But it was with that oh so Durham energy that Eddie opened up the historical Bed and Breakfast for women that served as social club and event venue, The L Room. “Don’t forget the “THE. Capital T, L, R,” Eddie chuckles, with no lack of seriousness in the warning. The L Room is a famous part of Durham’s history. A friend introduced me to the history around the time Eddie would have still been selling Motherland Organics at the Farmer’s Market and festivals downtown. Created by Eddie to provide a refuge and oasis for women, inspired by the reality of Eddie’s mother who was a nurse and mother of 5, and like too many women over worked and isolated in their toil.

Eddie’s words on the founder’s page for the B&B state, “Every woman deserves a peaceful break from work and family,” a phrase that probably seldom is said so succinctly. Considering Eddie’s mother, and the 30.7million women (adjust for inflation), who live just in the United States, that’s a lot of people who deserve a break and like too many Americans aren’t told they have a right or access to the time and space to even attempt to relax.
So, The L Room, capital T.L.R., provided that refuse. It was a space to share stories, experiences, and business dealings and of high priority, relax. Meetings, parties, seminars, you name it The L Room provided a salon for women in community making moves and a space for peace for those who were exhausted by the movement. But wait, how did a young Black entrepreneur from NYC with an education in business, and background in fashion and merchandising end up bottling and selling a ginger lemonade, an amazingly delicious organic ginger lemonade I might add? Well, just as it was motivation for finding a route to Durham, it was again all due to one of Eddie’s mysterious, if not influential, clients.

A woman from DC who had just stayed at The L Room called Eddie up after returning to her home and inquired about a drink that was served at The L room. That drink was the original recipe Ginger Lemonade, before it was bottled and before turmeric would find its way into the mix as well. The client was hoping the drink was purchasable in the DC area or potentially shipped to the city. At the time Eddie could have easily said no, as it wasn’t available in these options, but being an entrepreneur instead said, “I can do that” and the rest is history. It is a history, again like much of Durham, that is not widely known, and being a Black business, parallels Durham’s Black history as only doubly unknown.

Eddie started bottling the lemonade around the same time Eddie began making some life modifications. Now an experienced vegetarian of 40 years Eddie eats at least 80% organic as well. Motherland Organics lemonade is produced out of that same willpower and commitment to quality ingredients. The drink may as well be Eddie’s essence bottled as much as it is a refreshing and well-loved wellness drink.
Much like a community, it isn’t one sole thing that makes Motherland Organics Ginger Lemonade, and the much younger and hipper Turmeric Ginger Lemonade, an amazing product. Its high quality can be credited to the organic lemons, which are the purifiers, the fresh ginger root with such a long list of abilities that Eddie suggests just googling it, but for the purposes of this article we will say ginger is a known anti-inflammatory much like turmeric, which was a more recent edition as the medicinal benefits of the herb became more popular. Inflammation is a common issue many people suffer from, both chronically and in an acute fashion. Inflammation, fatigue, and of course immunity suppression are all common issues as a result of the hustle and bustle and every day stressors of this life. Many wellness products advertise support in these areas and of course, “we all can use a boost” Eddie says firmly. Motherland Organics offers a boost that is both tasty and is locally made too, I might add.

Motherland Organics is created from organic produce, sourced from the Co-Op, to create a stimulating beverage designed to boost the drinker’s wellness, and Eddie knows that Black community can do the same for each other. “We all can use a boost,” is also how Eddie feels about Black community. Eddie is an entrepreneur, but also a Black elder in community and proud purveyor of all things Black. In fact, the Motherland Organics bottles now feature the images, names, and dates of inventions made by Black inventors. The new label is here for Black history month and brings Motherland Organics full circle in communicating Eddie’s commitment to wellness, Black community, and Black history.

In the month of Black history, Eddie reminded me that more than just making the Taste of Durham, Eddie is also a mover in the movement of Durham’s Black community. With The L Room, which lives on today as a website full of resources for woman and woman entrepreneurs, Eddie is also a member of Southerners on New Ground – a Southern social justice advocacy organization, a supporter of the Co-Op, as well as an artist and retailer of Black art.

It is this energy that Eddie is using to launch the next initiative by creating an ecosystem of support for Black businesses and community. I assure you this is all hush hush hush as any great business dealings would be, but what I can tell you is that Eddie sees traditions of the diaspora that link Black peoples together. Business savvy and shrewdness are strong parts of culture, as well as community skepticism of products marketed to Black people, these conflicts of experiences often hinder our Black entrepreneurs. Eddie wants to see Black businesses share and if I may, cooperate with each other, on a large scale. Cooperation amongst each other, just like cells in the body, working with each other to share resources in an effort to support and boost up our immunities, is what Eddie wishes for Black businesses owners through shared businesses practices, education, mentorship and communication through which Eddie envisions authentic change and growth.

“Inter-generationalisim,” Eddie asserts with the same smiling eyes and healthy glee spoke with throughout our talk. Eddie prided the Co-Op for sharing values which are hallmarks of progress for a healthy business, values like inter-generationalisim, gender expansiveness, and more specifically support of Black men, cis and queer, as well as for community members who may go overlooked in terms of recognition and support. Essentially not just helping people buy or support Black, but helping Black people buy Black is what Eddie is working on, maybe always has been from what I could glean from Eddie’s short retailing of a long history of work and investment.

“And support local,” Eddie added, citing that we have to create a cycle of energy in community where we keep information, support, and money circulating in our communities. Just like how Eddie purchases fresh ginger, organic lemons, and turmeric as well as the ionized water all used in the bottling process for Motherland Organics from the Co-Op, we too have to keep circulating in community. In fact, Eddie sources from the Co-Op not just out of convenience, but because we have been a large supporter and seller of Motherland Organics products.

“That’s how we grow, through the circulation of shared experience and sharing amongst each other,” Eddie offered. From someone who has been living in Durham for almost longer than I have been Black, queer, and alive Eddie spoke lovingly of my generation, with a sense of hope that I think is at times hard to come across. Much like the addition of turmeric to the original formula, I think Eddie knows that we can always add to the recipe and improve on the foundations of something good. We have to keep circulating, because when we don’t, all the good things fall to the bottom and the product that we are left with is lesser for it and the benefits we receive are not as potent without all of the ingredients acting in concert. Some additions to a product, and to our lives, every now and then keep us fresh, boosted and invigorated for the next steps.

So if you haven’t had the luck of sampling some Motherland Organics for yourself, I suggest venturing out to some of the Durham retailers stocking the product, including the Co-op, Cecy’s Gallery, or Pure Soul. Get your hands on a bottle and in the process support not only one of Durham’s very own, but also an amazing product, Black business and community member whose entrepreneurial spirit continues to give life to this city. Because even as great as Motherland Organics is, the story on this shelf is only just a taste of Durham.