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City Spotlight

Posted on: April 18, 2017

Mary Elizabeth Ferguson: The Legacy of Her Labor Lives on in Norfolk Botanical Garden

Norfolk Botanical Garden lost a piece of its history this week with the passing of Mary Elizabeth Ferguson, who, at 97, was the last known living Works Progress Administration (WPA) garden worker.  She was instrumental in telling the story of the 220 African American workers who cleared the land and planted the first azaleas and other flowers in what ultimately became the city public garden.    

In this 2009 video, Ferguson talked about life during the Great Depression
and what led her to the WPA project.

History: In April 1935, the WPA was established under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, as a means of creating government jobs for some of the nation’s many unemployed. In 1938, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) grant of $76, 278 was awarded for the Azalea Garden project.

Since most of the male labor force was at work with other projects for the city, a group of more than 200 African American women and 20 men were assigned to the Azalea Garden project.

Laboring from dusk until dawn, the labor crew cleared dense vegetation and carried the equivalent of 150 truck. loads of dirt by hand to build a levee for the lake. The laborers were paid twenty-five cents an hour for their hard work.

Within less than a year, a section of underbrush had been cleared and readied for planting. By March of 1939, 4,000 azaleas, 2,000 rhododendrons, several thousand miscellaneous shrubs and trees and one hundred bushels of daffodils had been planted. Every year, the Garden honors the workers and their contribution.