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Garden wants to identify people who built it decades ago

October 7, 2018

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — MISSING: 155 men and women. African American. Most are presumed dead or well into their 90s.

REWARD: The chance to honor their pioneering work.

Norfolk Botanical Garden is marking its 80th anniversary on Oct. 20. It will also be the 10th WPA Garden Heritage Celebration to remember the 200 African American women and 20 men who chopped through thick underbrush, cut down trees by hand and waded through swamp and snakes to create the garden.

For years, researchers have been able to document only 65 of the workers, and some with only a first or last name.

Kelly Welsh, marketing and communications director for NBG, said the garden wants to finally identify all the workers and she hopes the public can help.

Historians and researchers have looked for a master list and have yet to find one.

Martha McClenny Williams spent years consulting with archivists and searched newspaper and government records for her book, “WPA Original Gardeners: Norfolk Botanical Garden.” She also sits on the NBG’s President’s Council on Inclusion and Diversity.

Williams said no one has found any complete payroll documents, work logs, or any type of comprehensive list.

The laborers were paid through the Works Progress Administration, a program started in 1935 to put people unemployed by the Great Depression to work. Those records didn’t yield anything.

“We just don’t know why they didn’t keep any papers,” Williams said. “It’s a mystery.”

In the mid-1930s, Norfolk was building an airport and the surrounding marsh was deemed perfect for gardens — a picturesque welcome for visitors.

In early 1938, WPA programs had put hundreds of local citizens to work, and many African American women found sewing jobs. They were soon replaced, however, by white women looking for work. With men already busy with manual labor jobs, the African American women were given wheelbarrows, pickaxes and shovels and dispatched to gardening projects around the city, such as City Park and Calvary Cemetery.

That summer, Norfolk received a large WPA grant to overhaul the 25 acres near the airport. It would be called “Azalea Garden.”

This was much more grueling than the city garden sites. Women contended with ticks, snakes and mosquitoes as they slogged through the water and underbrush. And they did it while wearing dresses, the standard for women at the time.

During the winter, they wrapped their arms and legs in clothes and rags like mummies to ward off the cold.

They dug and hauled the equivalent of 150 truckloads of soil to create the levee for Mirror Lake.

Many of the women would suffer health issues for years.

“The city of Norfolk is building an airport and using large tools and equipment,” Williams said, “and these women are using shovels, hoes and rakes to build this project. It’s insane. It just doesn’t make sense.”

By March 1939, the men and women had cleared the land and planted 2,000 rhododendron, 4,000 azaleas, miscellaneous bushes and several thousand camellias.

The project was complete in 1942. But because of the South’s segregation laws, the women wouldn’t be able to visit the gardens until the mid-1960s.

Williams said that she learned from interviewing some of the women before their deaths, and their children, is that the women didn’t talk much about their work.

They were happy that they were able to feed their families during the Depression, Williams said, even though African Americans were paid less than whites in WPA programs.

“But people just put it on the back burner and didn’t talk about it because it was too painful.”

James Justice, now 83, only remembers his mother, Annie Garrison, leaving the house early in the mornings, returning after dark, and bringing home Joseph’s coat, a colorful flower, to grow in the windowsill. She sometimes mentioned her work was brutal and that she had to dig ditches and look out for snakes. She died almost 50 years ago.

It wasn’t until Justice read a newspaper article a few years ago about the gardeners that he put his memories together.

“It didn’t dawn on me until then what she had been doing.”

A few years ago, the Ruffner Middle School’s Ruffner Academy Community Problem Solving Group learned of the workers and did an oral history project with some of the children of the workers who knew the stories.

Williams would also like to find those former students and have them at the October event.

She said they were one of her inspirations for writing her book.

“Without them, the story may have remained untold.”

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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