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Harrison B. Wilson Archives
Hold Botanical Garden Records

In 1938, three years after the founding of the Virginia Division of Virginia Union University (Norfolk State), work began on what is now Norfolk Botanical Garden. The records, 1.5 cubic feet of documentation, pertaining to Norfolk Botanical Garden have been donated to NSU’s Harrison B. Wilson Archives.

Within those records is the story of the approximately 600 African-American women 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.

“The records, which chronicle the role which African-American women played in creating a garden paradise out of a swampy forest during the Depression, are especially meaningful and complementary to our archival holdings because we specialize in the records of African-Americans in Virginia,” said Assistant Archivist Annette Montgomery. She said that the records are currently being processed, preserved and made available to researchers.

The story of how the Norfolk Botanical Garden came to be is intriguing.

Then-Norfolk city manager Thomas P. Thompson and young horticulturalist Frederic Heutte believed that Norfolk could develop a garden as fine as the one in Charleston, S.C., which brought an influx of tourists to that city annually. In the summer of 1938, through a grant from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 200 African-American women and 20 African-American men began clearing the land—a difficult job for which they were paid 25 cents an hour.  Working through the summer and winter, the workers cleared enough land to bring into being what was first known as Azalea Gardens. By March 1939, 4,000 azaleas, 2,000 rhododendrons, several hundred trees and shrubs and 100 bushels of daffodils had been planted. Over a nine-year period 600 women enjoyed a steady income from that grueling work.

In 2009, the Norfolk Botanical Garden began its annual heritage celebration by unveiling a sculpture and dedicating the WPA Memorial Garden, which honors the contributions of the 220 African Americans responsible for the garden’s beginnings. The Archives also recognize the importance of preserving this heritage. “The acquisition of the Norfolk Botanical Garden Collection is part of our ongoing effort to reach into the community and acquire significant records detailing the contributions and achievements of African Americans in Virginia,” said Dr. Tommy Bogger, director of the Archives. “In doing so, we are able to promote student research and preserve the documents for future generations.”

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