If you believe that a family member was part of the original 220 African American workers through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), please email us at marketing@nbgs.org or call us at 757-441-5830 ext. 332.
Scroll below to view the current list of known names.
WPA statue

The idea for the eventual Norfolk Botanical Garden came from City Manager, Thomas P. Thompson. Because the climate of Norfolk was uniquely suited to azaleas he believed a garden could be created to rival those of Charleston, S.C., which even during the depression drew tourists to their city.

On June 30, 1938, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) awarded a grant of $76,278 to begin the project. It began as Azalea Gardens. Since most of the male labor force was at work with other city projects; a group of 200 African American women and 20 African American men received the assignment.

Laboring from dawn until dusk, the workers cleared dense vegetation and carried the equivalent of 150 truckloads of dirt by hand to build a levee for the surrounding lake. For a period of four years, the 220 original workers continued the back-breaking task of clearing trees, pulling roots and removing stumps. They worked in harsh conditions, long hours during all four seasons, regardless of the blistering heat, humidity, rain, finger-numbing cold, snow or frigid temperatures. They battled snakes, mosquitoes, ticks, and poison ivy. In less than a year, a section of the trees, briers, vines and underbrush had been cleared and readied for planting, using only pickaxes, hoes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. By March 1939, the work had progressed so that 4,000 azaleas, 2,000 rhododendrons, several thousand camellias, other shrubs and 100 bushels of daffodils had been planted. The men and women turned overgrown, swampy acres into a garden that stylistically expressed the national trend of landscape architecture during the late 1930’s. Neither the work nor the pay was great, but it was a means of putting food on the table, which would not have been possible otherwise.
Learn more about the legacy of the WPA original gardeners. (BLOG)
Learn more about the Foundations: Breaking Ground with the WPA

Learn more about the Garden’s Presidents’ Council on Inclusion & Diversity

WPA Memorial Garden Heritage Day

For the 220 WPA workers, this memorial serves to honor and remember the legacy of beauty they created for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Breaking Ground by Kathleen Farrell

“Breaking Ground” is the design and creation of an original larger-than-life-size bronze sculpture honoring the 220 African-American women and men employed through the WPA Project to labor in the tree-filled swampland from 1938-1942. The artist used photos of actual WPA workers from the era and an African-American female model. The above photo is of Mary Ferguson who was last known living WPA worker in front of the memorial sculpture.

The Garden, poem by Gracie Anthony

At the base of the statue features an excerpt of the poem The Garden, written by Gracie Anthony daughter of Josephine Hopkins, one of the original WPA workers.

Known WPA Workers

  • Sally Tucker Anthony Austin
  • Berline Banks
  • Narcissus Bond
  • Gertrude Virginia Brooks
  • Hattie Brown
  • Oreatha Brown
  • Lena Bunch
  • Vernell Burrus
  • Sadie Buxton
  • Virginia Chavis
  • Elnora Collins
  • Irene Cousins
  • Elnora Cowell
  • Ellis Crumpler
  • Clara Davis
  • Moses Eley
  • Miss Elizabeth
  • Cornellia Epperson
  • Fanny Waterfield Fentress
  • Evora Flowers
  • Robert Duncan Ford
  • Jenny Garris
  • Annie Garrison
  • Ethel Graham
  • Marie Woodhouse Harris
  • Maria Parker Haskins
  • Caroline Hill
  • Winnie Holland
  • John Holley
  • Ruth Howell Holmes
  • Josephine Hopkins
  • Nannie Mae Ingram
  • Mary Ellen Jackson
  • Gladys D. James
  • Mary Jarvis
  • Bessie M. Johnson
  • Ethel Burford Johnson
  • Margaret Johnson
  • Annie Mae Jones
  • Daniel Jones
  • Edna Joyce
  • Thelma Amanda Wollard Mabery
  • Henrietta Martin
  • Mitt Mason
  • Wyatt Mason
  • Josephine Massey
  • Ida F. Mays
  • Carrie Melton
  • Mary Mitchell
  • Mary Nash
  • Elizabeth Newby
  • Addie Newsome
  • Ethel Scott Peoples
  • Mildred Perry
  • Mary Peterson
  • Josephine Rollins
  • Miss Sawyer
  • Martha E. Sharpe
  • Nellie Simms
  • Essie Sneed
  • Rebecca Sweeney
  • Mattie Taylor
  • Rosa L. Taylor
  • Nep Thomas
  • Essie L. Torrence
  • Pearl Turner
  • Albert Urquhart
  • Lola Tolliver Walton
  • Luvinia White
  • Mary H. White
  • Montgomery Willis Jr.
  • Martha Webb Wilson
  • Blanche Worrell
  • Mary Elizabeth Ferguson – she passed away on April 16, 2017. She was the last known living WPA worker.

There are 74 known names as of 5/17/2023 when last updated.

Community Support

Reaching Our Community

Painting titled "Garden Club - WPA" by Maizelle

Garden Club – WPA

This life-size painting Garden Club – WPA was created by award-winning Norfolk artist Maizelle and has been showcased at the Chrysler Museum of Art. It pays tribute to the 220 African American women and men, who, as part of a depression era Works Progress Administration project, transformed swampland into the beautiful Garden we know today. The Garden has received enough donations to acquire the painting for the Garden’s permanent art collection for future generations to enjoy. Thank you to all who contributed!

Please help us to maintain the WPA Memorial Garden and continue to tell the story of the WPA  workers and their legacy for future generations. Your contribution, small or large, makes a big difference to the Garden and to our community.