For Virginians, the Depression was not as crippling as some other parts of the country. The unemployment rate was 10 percent at its worst--not good, but not as devastating as the national unemployment rate, which soared to about 30 percent. The state's commercial and industrial output fell only by 20 percent, whereas the rest of the nation experienced drops of 50 percent (Johnson, 3).
But while Virginia was not as hard-hit as other states during the Depression, for its black citizens the situation was not good. In cities like Newport News slums were prevalent--in Norfolk 12 percent of the people lived on only one percent of the land (Johnson, 3). Most of Newport News' 2,500 black workers, who worked in the shipyards and drydocking industries, lived in houses with no electricity, running water, central heating or bathrooms (Wagner, 26). And these conditions were not just a product of Depression conditions. In Virginia, as in most states, blacks had little or no share in the wealth or opportunities available to whites (Johnson, 2).
A March 13, 1935 Homestead Division press release about the Newport News Homesteads described the condition of black workers in Newport News:
"During normal times these workers have had an average weekly income of approximately $20.00, but owing to the reduced activities of the various industries in Newport News, this average income has fallen to approximately $14.00 per week. Employment has fallen to some two to three days per week. The living conditions of workers are extremely poor. A majority of the houses are substandard and without space for gardening. Many of the workers walk a half a mile in order to cultivate gardens. Despite such living conditions, the average rent paid by 200 families which were investigated is $12.96 per month."
As black workers in Newport News made plans to build a subsistence homestead, they were hoping to make a drastic improvement in their level of housing.