Building Community

Building Community

A young couple move in.
The Aberdeen Gardens model homes opened Nov. 28, 1936 and the first families began to move in Nov. 1, 1937. While there were industrial workers among the residents, there were also a few professionals, including doctors and lawyers. FSA photographers recorded some of the residents moving in, capturing images of families dressed up to take possession of their new homes (Johnson, 41).

Aberdeen Gardens had seven roads--A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. On Nov. 2, 1937 George Mitchell, an FSA regional director wrote Howe suggesting that in order to "stimulate pride in the achievements of Negro leaders" the Sponsoring Committee of the Aberdeen project should name the streets after black leaders in Virginia. He had picked three street names for a South Carolina project and "I found it fun to pick the three I selected, and I believe it would be a pleasant task for anyone who would take it over for Newport News." The Committee soon responded with the following suggestions, which were eventually adopted:

Langston, John Mercer--the first president of Virginia State College and a U.S. Congressman from Virginia.

Walker, Maggie Laura--the founder and president of St. Luke's Bank in Richmond. Leader and prominent business woman in Fraternal Orders Richmond, Va.

Davis, Daniel Webster-a minister, teacher, lecturer and poet from Richmond, Va.

Peake, Mary--Daughter of a black woman and an Englishman. Taught first school for contraband children by the Emancipation Oak on the grounds of Hampton Institute.

Russell, Archdeacon James S.--Founder and President, St. Paul's Normal and Industrial School, Lawrenceville, Va.

Lewis, Matt N.--Founder and publisher of Newport News Start; Pioneer Negro Journalist, Newport News, Va.

Weaver, W.B.--Founder and Director, Weaver Home for Negro Orphan Children, Hampton, Va.

Moving-in day.
There was the sense that Aberdeen Gardens was something special--the Depression's 'city on a hill.' The homesteaders and their sponsors were eager for the rest of the state, and the nation, to share their enthusiasm. On April 21, 1938, Eleanor Roosevelt, who had always been a supporter of subsistence homesteads, visited the neighborhood when she spoke at Hampton Institute's seventieth anniversary ceremony. In his Dec. 6, 1937 letter requesting that she visit, Howe told Roosevelt that "I am listed as the sponsor of a Negro Homestead of 160 homes near Newport News. Some thirty-five families have already moved in. Knowing your interest in these projects, it would be an excellent time of the year to visit this one. Perhaps we could combine your visit to the Institute with some meeting at the Homestead. It would be a great delight to the homesteaders. All of these thoughts make us doubly anxious to have you accept this invitation." When she visited, the First Lady spoke about "Seeking a Place in a Community" and afterwards she toured Walker's office, which was located at 4 West Lewis Road.

The formal opening of Aberdeen Gardens was held shortly after, on May 8, 1938. Although the sponsoring committee invited Virginia Gov. James H. Price to speak at the ceremony, he wrote back saying he was too busy so instead Sidney B. Hall, an FSA regional director spoke about the development as a method to solve "social problems and relationships." (Wagner, 30.)

With its own school and stores, the community was relatively self-contained. Residents used the school building as a community center and movies were shown on Tuesday nights, and adults could go to social events there during the weekends. The school was re-modeled three times. When it opened in September of 1939, the school was not large enough to fill all the classrooms, so children from other parts of Hampton were bussed in. In 1943, several community women started Aberdeen's first school lunch program, preparing food at their homes and then brining it to the school.

From the beginning on, the Aberdeen Gardens was more than just a housing project--it was a community. Neighbors looked out for each other, and the children who lived next door could become life-long friends. Longtime resident Claude Vann, Jr. said he knew every kid on his street, and that many of them still live there. Other residents also said the homestead was successful in creating an ideal community--both in architecture and human relationships.

Vann said the first person to move in was Maggie Johnson and her husband at number six East Russell Road. Like many others, she lived in Aberdeen Gardens for the rest of her life. "She just passed about a year ago. She was 94 I believe," Vann said.

Evelyn D. Chandler, who moved to Aberdeen Gardens in February 1938 at the age of seven said, "It was the perfect place to live. Just absolutely perfect. The houses were nice, everybody worked hard on their property and helped their neighbors, everybody looked after the children, and we had this wonderful community spirit. Plus, the way they put this community together we also had professionals mixed in, so not only did we have out parents as role models, we had these people to look up to. It was an ideal community-the same thing people look for today (qtd. in Tracey, 71)."