"For Blacks, by Blacks."

"For Blacks, by Blacks."


Aberdeen workers on lunch break.
Perhaps the most important element to the community's goal of self-sufficiency was also the most striking for the1930s--the notion of black pride. As the only such project for blacks, community members had both unusual opportunities and burdens. Resettlement Administration officials expected the Newport News Homesteads to serve as a model for other black communities. The Newport News homesteads also faced scrutiny from the press and neighboring whites.

But support from the government, at least, was generally dependable. In a March 13, 1935 press release announcing funding for the project, Division of Subsistence Homesteads officials outlined a set of ambitious goals. "The aim of the project, then, is to help these people leave their present environment, to give them an opportunity to utilize their spare time in the production of the food they require, and to lift them to a higher social and health level." While these were generally accepted intentions for the homesteads, in the 1930s the majority of the nation was not committed to raising "the social and health" level of blacks.

The press release went on to comment that, "The project will give a new economic stability to families who have hitherto been in constant danger of going on relief. It is also hoped that this demonstration of homesteading will attract the attention of private building industries to the possibility of homestead development for persons belonging to the low-income group."


Aberdeen staff.
From the beginning, planners wanted the homesteaders to have a big part in its creation. In a March 18, 1935 letter to Pynchon, Howe argued that those who would benefit from the project should manage it. He wrote: "I do not know what can be done to assure that the building of the Homestead Project is handled by Negro labor, but I think it would be a very fine thing if the whole project can speak for and of the ability of the Negro. The Committee and those interested hope very much that this policy will be carried out just insofar as possible."

William R. Walker, Jr. the community's manager, and William C. McNeill, the project's chief construction engineer were black, and all of the people who worked on the project, from the leadership down, were black. Hilyard Robinson, a well-known black architect and a member of the Howard University faculty, was appointed at the head architect. (Walker, who was hired July 23 1936, continued to live in the community for the next 15 years.) Robinson's qualifications were impressive--he was head of Howard University's department of architecture from 1926 to 1933, and received degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University (Tracey, 68). In 1934, he became a senior architect for the resettlement administration, as well as a consulting architect for the National Capital Advisory Committee (Tracey, 68).


Aberdeen engineers working.
The practice of having blacks in leadership positions did not escape scorn from local whites. The Newport News Daily Press reported Aug. 14, 1936 that,"They are attractive houses, as houses of their kind go [to be sold to] Negroes of this community on a long time payment plan-providing buyers can be found...There were 376 Negroes at work yesterday, to say nothing of the one who strutted a badge bearing the label 'Special Officer (qtd. In Perdue, 191).'"

But, despite a few critics, the slogan Charles E. Pynchon, General Manager of the Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation, gave the project in 1935-for blacks, by blacks--would become the defining feature of the Newport News homestead.

"This project derives one of its most significant features from the fact that it is a project by Negroes, for Negroes. The project has been sponsored by recognized leaders of the Negro race. It has been planned by Negro members of the staff of the Division's Planning Section, headed by Mr. Jesse R. Otis. I have every confidence that the future history of the Newport News project will be a record of achievement and advancement by members of our colored population," Pynchon said in the press release.