Note: This story is part of a 10 On Your Side series throughout February in honor of Black History Month.
NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Mary Elizabeth Ferguson was one of 200 African American women, along with 20 African American men, who quite literally, cleared the way for the Norfolk Botanical Garden.
Inside the garden is a special spot, not just because of its beauty, but because of its historical significance. It’s a statue of Ferguson, commemorated in bronze, and it’s part of the garden’s mission to honor the people who created it.
“I look at the statue, and I see my mom,” said Helen Ferguson.
In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) awarded a grant of more than $70,000 to begin the project, which is why this section of the Norfolk Botanical Garden is called the WPA Memorial Garden.
Looking at the swampy area next to the WPA Memorial Garden, Helen Ferguson said “when I come out here everybody looks at this part. I look over there, because to me, that’s what symbolizes what my mother had to endure, and that was here.”
Ferguson actually didn’t know her mother worked there until she was an adult.
“The thing is when they did the work it was back in the time when, no, they did not allow blacks here,” Ferguson said. “It was hard work and back then the women did not like talking about it and I would say mother didn’t talk about it for a very long time.”
But when the Norfolk Botanical Garden embarked on its mission to identify and honor the 220 African American women and men who cleared this land, that changed.
“She’s looking at it in a different light,” Ferguson said. “Not that I slaved in here and that I worked hard for this to be this way, but I can hold my head up now because at one time, I couldn’t walk in here. Now I’m here.”
Mary Elizabeth Ferguson died a few years ago at the age of 97, but not before receiving the recognition she deserved.
“Mother is like our momma celebrity now,” Helen Ferguson said. “She stood back and looked and I believe they have a picture of her looking up at the statue and it’s like she’s looking like this is amazing.”
Sharing that recognition is what the Norfolk Botanical Garden is determined to do.
“We want their families and we want our community to know, this, these are the people who allow us to be here today,” said Clenise Platt, board chair of the Norfolk Botanical Garden.
Platt has made it her mission to collect all 220 names.
“Every way that we can possibly honor them, we want to do that,” Platt said. “We know they didn’t get their just due when they were here, we know that, but we can certainly do our part to continue that legacy and to honor them in a way that is befitting them at this time.”
So far, they have 73 names. Every year, they read each one aloud at the annual Garden Heritage Celebration.
Read them all.
“To be able to call all 220 of those names, oh my goodness, that would be amazing,” Platt said. “It would give the garden an opportunity, because we do this and this is our 15th year doing this, it would give the garden and opportunity to continue to say their names for years and years to come.”
Platt wishes the people who cleared the land for the garden could see what it is today, but she’s determined to build on their legacy.
“To me, the garden, I call this Norfolk Botanical Garden the garden of the people,” Platt said. “It is really a garden for everybody but for me personally, it is very special because I recognize, to be honest with you, that I’m standing on their shoulders.”
It’s that pride Ferguson feels when she looks at the statue, thinking of her mother and all she achieved.
“For everybody it means we have overcome, and when I say overcome, that means we have made this garden beautiful for everyone,” Ferguson said. “It does not matter what color you are or how much money you make, but we have started something to let everyone enjoy.”
- If you know someone who worked at the Garden in the 1930s, reach out to garden officials at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 757-441-5830 (ext. 332). This year’s Garden Heritage Celebration is from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 16.
- Norfolk Botanical Garden is offering free admission on Thursdays during the month of February to celebrate Black History Month. It’s a timed entry ticket, so you need to reserve a time. Click here to learn more.
- Additionally, the President’s Council on Inclusion and Diversity at NBG offers a scholarship for underrepresented minority students in green industries. You can learn more about the scholarship by clicking here.
- You can learn more about the WPA Memorial Garden by clicking here.