Proposal

Proposal

"When in the history of the growth of civilization society experiences a major unbalance of equilibrium, such as the 1929 crisis, the best thought emerges to meet this challenge and work out a solution to these problems of unstability. But the directing force is at once confronted by the resistance and inertia of the masses; man's natural human lethargy. So it becomes essential to expend double effort, not only in initiating and leading change, but above all in drilling in the explicit details of technique for such growth."

--Lewis B. Walton, Chief of Special Plans, Resettlement Administration. Memo on the Newport News homesteads, 1936

About 10 percent of all subsistence homesteads were supposed to be built for blacks, and although the Newport News Homesteads was the only project for blacks to be completed, planning began early. Department of the Interior officials asked Hampton Institute administrators to write a grant proposal for the project in 1933 (Tracey, 66). Arthur Howe, president of Hampton Institute--a black college--wrote the proposal in 1934 and requested $280,000.


Howe's house at Hampton Institute.
Howe even tried to enlist the support of the first lady, whose sympathy for homesteads was well known. In a July 1934 telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt, Howe wrote, "Knowing your interest in subsistence homesteads I wire to urge Negro projects be approved and be developed separately. Believe greatest justice and goodwill can be secured in this way."

A plan for the homestead was submitted by a local sponsoring committee, and was approved on March 1, 1935. On March 13, 1935 Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, approved a $245,000 grant to build the subsistence homestead project a few miles outside Newport News for black industrial workers. The primary Newport News industries were shipbuilding and drydocking. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, which helped transfer coal that had been shipped, also employed many people. About 2,500 workers in the area were black (1935 press release).

The project was planned to house 158 families and homestead officials bought 440 acres of land, although not all of it was developed. It was four miles north of the Newport News business district and the main thoroughfare was Aberdeen Road, which the homestead was eventually named after. The houses were to be concentrated in a central area and surrounded by a greenbelt of forest. In addition to the garden spots-where the homesteaders could grow supplemental food-the government committed to provide twelve of the homesteaders with mules to "work their own and their neighbors' gardens (Walton memo.) Twelve cows would supply milk and space was laid out away from the homes to raise pigs. Each family had chickens, and every house came complete with a chicken coop. The government started the community out with 1,000 laying hens and 25,000 baby chicks.

Homesteaders also had the option of buying their houses. The homes were to be sold over a 30-year period at a 3 percent interest rate. Plans were also made for a community center, store and school.


Tugwell and FDR at Greenbelt, Md.
The New Deal ideal of accepting aid in order to be self-sufficient was present from the beginning of the project. Although the community did not receive the full amount they requested, a group of local citizens organized to clear the land at not cost to help make up some of the costs. The project had several local sponsors, but the central figure was Howe. Other sponsors included William M. Cooper, the director of extension education at Hampton Institute and several Newport News citizens.

But not all conditions were ideal for the Newport News homesteaders. In the fall of 1935, project planning ground to a halt when the government discontinued funding. Howe wrote in a Nov. 1, 1935 letter to Tugwell that, "I should like to receive a first-hand statement about the matter. If it has been discontinued, I wish to make suitable apologies to the City and State officials, and particularly to the one hundred applicants whom we have, in good faith, continued to promise prospective homesteads." Funding was eventually re-instated, and work began in earnest-with an all-black work force.