New documentary tells the story of a trailblazing neighborhood.
by BEN SWENSON
The children played outside until dusk, running through streets lined with modest brick homes. There was freedom, joy and occasional mischief – hopping fences to pluck ripe fruit from their neighbors’ trees, for instance. But God forbid you cross a line. “My dad always said there were 158 sets of parents, all of whom were authorized to take a belt to you,” says Claude Vann III.
These are the recollections of the children of Aberdeen Gardens, descendants of Black Americans who planted seeds of change. As idyllic and innocent as the upbringing was, Aberdeen Gardens was something else, too – groundbreaking.
The neighborhood was the nation’s first homestead community designed and built by Black Americans for Black Americans. It offered dignity and opportunity when oppression and segregation ruled and became a model for other such communities around the country.
Now a homegrown effort aims to preserve the mem ories of those children-turned-elders: The Aberdeen 158: Built for Us, By Us is a documentary that tells the story of the Black men, women and children who created and inhabited a trailblazing neighborhood that has endured more than 80 years. The film comes at a crucial moment, not only because time’s running out – one of the documentary’s participants died during post-production – but also because there are timeless lessons in its story.
Drive to Aberdeen Gardens in central Hampton today and you’ll pass city blocks of every flavor. Yet this neighborhood was once deep in the countryside, ringed by thick forest and beyond that a patchwork of farm fields, far removed from city streets.
Margaret Wilson remembers that well. She was born in Aberdeen Gardens in 1939, the granddaughter of the neighborhood’s first residents, Charlie and Maggie Jones. Wilson stayed there until her 20s, when she married an airman. “We were a trial, an experiment, an audition,” she says. “And we showed them what community really meant.”
The story of Aberdeen Gardens officially begins in the mid-1930s, but the Black community’s connection to this place and this land spans more than four centuries, according to David Barr III, a playwright and co-producer of the film. Barr spent time as a child with his grandparents in Aberdeen Gardens. Adjacent to the original neighborhood is the Tucker Cemetery, reputedly holding the remains of the first Black person born in North America.
Black people were painfully familiar with discrimination in 1935, when a New Deal agency began creating communities of low-income families needed for local workforces around the country. Planners hoped residents would use their spare time to produce their own food, keeping them off the dole and bolstering their social and economic security.
There were scores of these efforts across the country, but Aberdeen Gardens was the first for Black people and the model for similar communities. A grant to Hampton Institute (later Hampton University) funded the construction, a Black architect designed the community, and Black laborers cleared the land and built the 158 brick homes on 440 acres.
Lots were a half-acre or more. Everyone had a garden, fruit trees and a chicken coop. The homes had between three and five rooms, indoor plumbing, electricity and steam heat, and the wider neighborhood had a store, school, community center and bar, where Jasmine Sanford plied her trade as one of the first Black female
owners of a drinking establishment.
Aberdeeners, as they called themselves, rented their homes through the end of World War II when a policy change created the opportunity for ownership. Many spent their days working industries such as Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, as the shipyard was then known.
Above all, Aberdeeners were house-proud. “For a Black man in that day to have a brick house with indoor plumbing and electricity, you couldn’t help but have pride,” says Vann, whose grandfather was one of the original residents. But that was the rub, and the challenge; amenities like these were not available to everyone, regardless of their race.
The neighborhood was set against the background of Jim Crow. Backlash from white citizens was constant. But the local Black community rallied local support at home and farther afield. Eleanor Roosevelt toured Aberdeen Gardens in 1938 to back the project.
Yet the challenges have continued, with Aberdeen Gardens rising to meet them every time. In 1994, the neighborhood won state and national historic designation as commercial development and condemnation threatened, but ultimately fell to “an army of canes and walkers” that descended on the General Assembly in Richmond, according to Barr.
More recently, the community elders fear that apathy will undo the connection between the past and present. People of different races call Aberdeen Gardens home – a positive development. But now there are more renters with fewer generational ties.
Wilson is president of the Historical Foundation of Aberdeen Gardens Inc. Two of the original brick homes now serve as the Aberdeen Gardens Historic Museum, furnished with mid-century decor to replicate the original interior. She hopes to recruit younger people to help, “and by that, I mean people in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” she says.
A slate of events, such as an annual fish fry, aims to preserve that spirit. But time marches on and so do the challenges, says Barr, among them disenfranchisement and gentrification. That’s why this documentary comes at such a crucial time. “These are the voices of people who remember being able to go into a grocery store based on whether there was a ‘White’ or ‘Colored’ sign,” he says. “This is a clarion call to say, ‘Come back home and support the essence of who we are.’”