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.

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.

Known WPA Workers

  • Sally Tucker Anthony Austin
  • Gertrude Virginia Brooks
  • Oreatha Brown
  • Lena Bunch
  • Vernell Burrus
  • Sadie Buxton
  • Virginia Chavis
  • Elnora Collins
  • Irene Cousins
  • Clara Davis
  • Moses Eley
  • Cornellia Epperson
  • Fanny Waterfield Fentress
  • Evora Flowers
  • Robert Duncan Ford
  • Jenny Garris
  • Ethel Graham
  • Marie Woodhouse Harris
  • Maria Parker Haskins
  •  Caroline Hill
  • Winnie Holland
  • John Holley
  • Ruth Howell Holmes
  • Josephine Hopkins
  • Mary Ellen Jackson
  • Gladys D. James
  • Mary Jarvis
  • Ethel Burford Johnson
  • Annie Mae Jones
  • Daniel Jones
  • Edna Joyce
  • Henrietta Martin
  • Mitt Mason
  • Ida F. Mays
  • Carrie Melton
  • Mary Mitchell
  • Mary Nash
  • Elizabeth Newby
  • Mildred Perry
  • Mary Peterson
  • Josephine Rollins
  • Miss Sawyer
  • Essie Sneed
  • Rosa L. Taylor
  • Nep Thomas
  • Essie L. Torrence
  • Pearl Turner
  • Albert Urquhart
  • Luvinia White
  • Mary H. White
  • Montgomery Willis Jr.
  • Martha Webb Wilson
  • Mary Elizabeth Ferguson – she passed away on April 16, 2017. She was the last known living WPA worker.
Mary Ferguson, last known surviving WPA worker in front of the memorial sculpture

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.

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 is seeking donations to acquire the painting for the Garden’s permanent art collection for future generations to enjoy.

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