Enjoy a visit this holiday weekend to Norfolk Botanical Garden at 6700 Azalea Garden Road. While there, take in a little art and history by checking out the two sculptural tributes to the 220 African-American women and men who developed the garden’s first 75 acres from 1938 to 1942.
The 200 women and 20 men toiled for 25-cents an hour in this New Deal-era Works Progress Administration project, which was announced on June 30, 1938 and aimed to help counter the effects of the Great Depression. The Norfolk Botanical Garden website provides a glimpse of the working conditions:
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.
There is one surviving worker, Mary Elizabeth Ferguson, now in her 90s.
In recent years, the garden has held annual heritage commemorations of the work and has dedicated two sculptures – “Breaking Ground,” by Kathleen Farrell, and “Intertwine,” by Mark Grieve and Illana Spector, which stands at the garden’s entrance way.