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Small Hampton community celebrates its long history

Jordan Crawford | 7/3/2013, 4:06 p.m.

Driving down Aberdeen Road, one passes a grouping of small, red brick houses. To many passersby, the structures are just another part of a middle-class neighborhood. Look closer and you’ll discover a significant piece of Virginian African-American history.

On November 1, 1937 the first people, Mr. and Mrs. Chandler -- a young, black, ambitious couple — moved into Aberdeen Gardens. They had the choice of three, four, or five room homes all with indoor plumbing and steam heat.

Aberdeen Gardens was a “New Deal” planned community, a blueprint for housing, launched by Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). The college secured a $245,000 federal grant to create the housing development in 1934. It was the only Resettlement Administration community for blacks in Virginia and only the second neighborhood in the nation for blacks financed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Subsistence Homestead Project.

The development was for black workers in Hampton and Newport News who could not afford decent housing during the Great Depression. Roosevelt wanted black workers to have adequate places to live. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the model neighborhood, showing her keen interest.

Past and present residents agree that the significance of the historic community is that “it is the only community around today that was built for us by us.”

According to the Hampton History Museum, the neighborhood got its name from Aberdeen Road, the main connector to the Newport News Waterfront at the time. Aberdeen originally comes from Aberdeen, Scotland, the place from which early settlers immigrated.

Begun in 1934, Aberdeen Gardens was the only resettlement neighborhood in the United States designed by a black architect, Hilyard R. Robinson from Howard University, and built by black contractors and laborers. The 440 acre land tract was made up of five farms – the Todd, Curtis, and Old Dominion Land Company. 158 homes were built with indoor plumbing, furnaces, living and dining rooms, kitchens, closets, bathrooms, second level bedrooms, front and/or back or interior porches, attached garages, and spacious front and back yards.

Each home had a half acre of land where families could plant vegetable gardens, grow fruit trees, have chicken coops, and even farm animals. The federal government provided 12 mules, 12 cows, and 25,000 chickens.

The families living in Aberdeen Gardens were those of workers at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, doctors and lawyers. They paid between $11 and $15 per month for rent. Also included were a school, Aberdeen Elementary, and community center.

Past resident of Aberdeen Gardens, Evelyn Chandler, recalled the neighborhood being a close community. “Everybody looked out for each other. We were also a ‘clothes-line’ community. If I was playing on a different street and did something bad, my parents would know about it before I got home” she said. “I was scared to act up in school, because the teachers had no problem visiting your house on their way home that day.”

After being named alphabetically, Hampton Institute renamed the neighborhood’s seven streets after prominent black Virginians, December 9, 1937.

After World War II, the families were able to buy their homes. A strong sense of community led to the establishment of neighborhood organizations, a museum, and a local historic society (The Historic Foundation of Aberdeen Gardens and the Aberdeen Gardens Historic and Civic Association).

Today, many of Aberdeen Gardens’ inhabitants are descendants of original occupants. Many who grew up in the neighborhood and moved away have returned to live. Walter Jackson, returned former resident, said, “We all still know each other. No matter how long you’ve been gone, when you come back and drive through, you always see someone you know.”

On March 8, 1994, James L. Eason, Hampton city mayor, signed the Proclamation in Recognition of the Preservation of Historic Aberdeen. Aberdeen Gardens is on the Virginia State Register of Historic Landmarks and the National Register of Historic Places.

“Aberdeeners” have great pride, motivation, and a general love for their community as evidenced by their Annual Heritage Day Celebration, Saturday at the Aberdeen Gardens Historic Museum, and their motto – “In unity there is strength, and with commitment and work, we can achieve.”