There are many hidden and untold stories about the African Americans who contributed to the fabric of American History. One such example is that of the women and men who worked as the original gardeners at what has become Norfolk Botanical Gardens.
The names and stories of the original gardeners and all those who contributed to its birth may not have been told had it not been for a group of Ruffner Academy students. Dr. Martha Williams has chronicled the contributions in her book, Norfolk Botanical Gardens: WPA Untold Story.” Williams spoke during a Black History Month program held in February.
She tells of the original 200 African-American women and 20 African-American men who undertook the hard, back-breaking work of clearing a mosquito- and snake-infested swamp land of its dense vegetation to make way for the planting of shrubs and flowers that became the foundation for today’s botanical garden.
It was in 1938, three years after the founding of the Virginia Division of Virginia Union University (Norfolk State), when work began on what is now Norfolk Botanical Garden. It was the Great Depression, a time when the U.S. struggled economically. Citizens were out of work and business and factories closed. Norfolk City Manager Thomas P. Thompson and young horticulturalist Frederic Heutte believed that Norfolk could support an azalea garden. Through a grant of $76, 278 from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the project began.
“The women worked year-round,” said Williams. “In less than a year, a 25-acre section of trees, brush, vines and undergrowth had been cleared.” By March 1939, workers who were paid 25 cents an hour, planted 4,000 azaleas, 2,000 rhododendrons, 100 bushels of daffodils and 2,000 camellias had been planted and the equivalent of 150 truckloads of dirt had been carried by hand to build a levee for the lake.
Among the original gardeners was Mary Ferguson, who is now 97 years old. She is the mother of Dr. Larry Ferguson, NSU associate professor of education. He and his sister Helen Ferguson Williams attended the program. “She kept it from us,” said Dr. Ferguson. But the Ferguson siblings are proud of their mother and her contributions. “Every time I look at her there’s a new appreciation for what she had to do for her family.”