The Washington Post - 22.08.2019

(Joyce) #1

A8 EZ RE THE WASHINGTON POST.THURSDAY, AUGUST 22 , 2019


road work, and management was
performed by blacks, many of
whom would stay on to live at the
settlement, sets Aberdeen Gar-
den apart from all other [New
Deal] projects,” historians from
the Virginia Department of His-
toric Resources wrote in the ap-
plication. “A government funded
project ‘by blacks — for blacks,’ a
motto that the Hampton sponsor-
ing group adopted, was unprec-
edented in the South as well as
the United States.”

A


bout eight of the original
families remain in the
neighborhood. Some of the
houses are in disrepair, but the
double-brick construction has
proved enduring, with each home
as square and traditional as a
Monopoly game piece.
It’s more diverse now — a few
white and Hispanic residents live
there. Other neighborhoods filled
in around it in the 1950s and ’60s,
still largely African American.
Those, too, consider themselves
part of Aberdeen Gardens.
With help from the city, the
neighborhood association
bought a pair of original houses
that are joined at the garage. One
house was renovated as offices,
and the other is being restored as
a museum. Neighbors have fur-
nished it with original furniture
and appliances from the 1930s.
Aberdeen Gardens hosts pro-
grams for schoolchildren and ses-
sions for each new graduating
class of the city police academy,
teaching about the neighbor-
hood’s origins. At the fish fry
Saturday, the mayor, the former
mayor, the commonwealth’s at-
torney, two council members and
a host of brass from the Hampton
city manager’s office all showed
up for food and good-natured
ribbing.
Wilson worries that the sense
of community that keeps the his-
tory alive will die out with her
generation. “I’m looking for some
young people to come behind
me,” she said. “It’s hard to find
people who will continue the
legacy. It’s so rich, and people
don’t know.”
They’re still discovering how
rich it is.
Last year, with the 400th anni-
versary approaching, researchers
identified more than 100 un-
marked burial places in the old
cemetery near the neighborhood.
Some are thought to date to the
1700s. Local lore holds that Wil-
liam Tucker, the first recorded
baby of African descent born in
the English colony around 1624,
could be among them.
Word is getting out. This year,
some new faces made it to the fish
fry. Among them were Cynthia
Young-Lee of Williamsburg and
Vicki Morris of Virginia Beach.
Both 64, they grew up together in
Richmond hearing Young-Lee’s
mother tell stories of her child-
hood in Aberdeen Gardens.
A few months ago, the friends
made a pilgrimage to see it for
themselves. They wound up tak-
ing the tour with “Miss Margaret”
— as most people refer to Wilson
— and went on to learn about the
first Africans who landed nearby.
Now they had shown up for the
fish fry in matching “Project
1619” shirts, excited to be part of a
legacy they had not known.
“We just wanted to follow the
history,” Young-Lee said. They
saw all sorts of connections — not
just to past events but to genera-
tions who dreamed and accom-
plished and built a society. Law-
yers, educators, soldiers, athletes,
doctors, politicians — figures who
came from Aberdeen Gardens, a
neighborhood in a place that
once put such people in bondage.
“This,” Morris said, as Ab-
erdeeners talked and laughed
around her, “was a starting
point.”
gregory.schneider@washpost.com

ing stories about the early days —
“and some of them were true,” he
said. There were the triumphs of
the neighborhood sports teams,
the Rattlers, named for the
snakes in the surrounding woods.
The families that crammed 13
people into three-room houses.
The time someone helped a guy
with a broken-down car and it
turned out to be Jackie Robinson.
The mailman who picked up
laundry. The woman who fetched
her husband from the tavern in a
wheelbarrow. The quiet old
neighbor who turned out to be a
Tuskegee airman.
“When somebody died, the
whole community would come
together,” Wilson said.
Everyone helped raise the chil-
dren, she said. “If you got in
trouble at school, by the time you
got home you would’ve been
spanked four times” by other
parents, she said.
In 1994, as commercial devel-
opment closed in, the neighbor-
hood won state and national his-
toric landmark status.
“The fact that the community
plan, architectural design, site
clearing, building construction,

When Claude Vann Jr. died in
2013, his family had the hearse
carry him through the neighbor-
hood one last time.
“My dad was a true Aberdeen-
er,” the son said. Retired from the
Air Force, Claude Vann III, 64,
owns several of the old houses
and rents them to younger fami-
lies.
Vann spent his whole life hear-

ticker-tape parade down Ab-
erdeen Road if she were alive
today,” said Claude Vann III.
Vann’s grandfather was an
original resident, who like the
others rented at first and then
purchased when given the
chance. Vann’s father returned
after a career in the military and
spent his old age as a kind of
unofficial mayor and handyman.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s
New Deal for a grant to build
better housing for working-class
black families from the nearby
shipyards, railroads and dock-
yards.
Every one of those houses still
stands in Aberdeen Gardens. All
seven neighborhood streets were
named for prominent African
Americans, including Peake,
Richmond banker Maggie Walker
and John Mercer Langston, Vir-
ginia’s first black congressman
and the first dean of Howard
University Law School.
Aberdeen Gardens was so at-
tractive — each home had at least
three-quarters of an acre for
growing vegetables, as well as
chicken coops and community
hogs — that the local newspaper
called for it to be turned over to
white workers.
But the president of Hampton
Institute, Arthur Howe, appealed
directly to Eleanor Roosevelt,
who visited the neighborhood in
1938 and advocated for its black
residents.
“She said, ‘They will not be
moved,’ ” Wilson said.
“Eleanor Roosevelt would get a

served history, from reconstruct-
ed Colonial villages to Civil War
battlefields, the artifacts of Afri-
can American heritage have
largely vanished with time and
neglect.
But traces remain. And one of
the deepest — just off the city’s
major commercial strip, between
a Wawa and a CVS — is at Ab-
erdeen Gardens.
The community’s roots span
centuries, possibly all the way to
those first Africans. The genera-
tions who followed tell a story of
mutual reliance and security, of a
place that sheltered its members
and helped them succeed. Today’s
Aberdeeners, as they call them-
selves, are fighting to keep the
legacy alive — not just the collec-
tion of 158 modest brick houses
but the powerful sense of black
community formed here.
“I think Aberdeen Gardens
represents a microcosm of the
journey that we’ve taken,” said
Steven Bond, 45, a Hampton as-
sistant city manager, who is
black. “A lot of African American
history has been lost because
those in power with the resources
to preserve it chose not to. It’s
different in Aberdeen Gardens.”
The neighborhood, said histo-
rian Cassandra Newby-Alexan-
der, “is something that didn’t get
erased.”

M


argaret Wilson’s grand-
parents were the first
family to move in, in 1937.
She remembers them describing
the thrill of that day — their three
boys unloading furniture from a
wagon across the muddy, unfin-
ished roads. The excitement of
the tidy brick house, the hard-
wood floors, indoor plumbing,
modern appliances. A huge step
up from the run-down place
where her shipyard-working
grandfather had lived.
Their oldest son managed to
get one of the houses a year later,
and that’s where Wilson was born
in 1939.
Black children from all over
the region were brought to the
community’s Aberdeen Elemen-
tary School, and there Wilson
learned a different history than
was taught in many of the area’s
white schools.
She learned about the White
Lion, the English ship that traded
“20 and odd” Africans for provi-
sions at Point Comfort in 1619.
About how those and others who
followed settled all around the
area, most bound into slavery.
How those slaves built the
stone Fort Monroe on Point Com-
fort in the 1830s. And how in 1861
three black men — Shepard Mal-
lory, Frank Baker and James
Townsend — escaped white slave
owners and demanded the feder-
al troops at Fort Monroe give
them refuge.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler de-
clared them “contraband” and
refused to return them to the
Confederates. As word spread,
hundreds and then thousands of
black Virginians escaped slavery
and flocked to Fort Monroe. They
lived at first in crude lean-tos in
the ruins of Hampton, burned by
its own residents rather than
leave it to the Union.
Vast “contraband camps” grew
up around the fort. Abolitionist
charities brought in teachers for
the children in the camps. Under
a giant oak, educator Mary Peake
read the Emancipation Procla-
mation aloud to the former
slaves.
Hampton Institute evolved
from the contraband camps as a
place to train black teachers. The
Emancipation Oak still stands on
the campus of what is now Hamp-
ton University.
And in the depths of Jim Crow
and the Depression, leaders at
Hampton Institute applied to

HAMPTON FROM A

Much African American heritage has been erased. Not here.


JOHN VACHON/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

RYAN M. KELLY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
TOP: A row of finished homes in what was then known as Newport News Homesteads, in 1937. The community was built as part of
a New Deal program to provide housing for working-class black families from the nearby shipyards, railroads and dockyards. It was
designed by a black architect, overseen by a black supervisor and built by black laborers. ABOVE: What the Hampton, Va.,
community, now known as Aberdeen Gardens and granted landmark status, looks like today. All of the original homes still stand.

RYAN M. KELLY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
One of the homes, now the Aberdeen Gardens Historic
Museum, has been restored with period furniture.

BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN
AND MISSY RYAN

cairo — An American military
drone was shot down in a rugged
patch of northern Yemen, said
U.S. officials and Yemeni rebels,
immediately triggering accusa-
tions of Iranian involvement in a
region where tensions between
Washington and Tehran are
growing.
On Wednesday, a military
spokesman for the Iran-aligned
rebels, known as the Houthis,
said in a tweet and on the group’s
TV station, al-Masirah, that an
MQ-9 Reaper drone was brought
down by the rebels’ air defense
system late Tuesday.
Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokes-
man for U.S. Central Command,
said in a statement, “We are
investigating reports of an attack
by Iranian-backed Houthis... on

a U.S. unmanned aircraft system
(UAS) operating in authorized
airspace over Yemen.”
U.S. officials, speaking on the
condition of anonymity to dis-
cuss undisclosed details of the
event, said an American MQ-
drone had been shot down.
The attack, the second such
instance in three months, threat-
ens to worsen tensions in a
region that has become a battle-
ground for the United States and
its Sunni Muslim allies against
Shiite Iran. On Wednesday,
Brown said, “We have been clear
that Iran’s provocative actions
and support to militants and
proxies, like the Iranian-backed
Houthis, poses a serious threat to
stability in the region and our
partners.”
In June, the U.S. military said
the Houthis had shot down a U.S.
drone with Iranian assistance.

The attacks underscore the grow-
ing military capabilities of the
rebels, who only a few years ago
were mountain fighters with no
access to armed drones or the

surface-to-air missiles that they
claimed were used to strike the
U.S. drones.
Houthi military spokesman
Yahya Saria claimed in a tweet

that the missile that brought
down the MQ-9 drone was “built
locally and will be unveiled soon
at a press conference.”
“We affirm to the powers of
aggression that they need to
think about the consequences of
their actions,” Saria said. “Our
aerial zone will no longer be
violated like before.”
It was unclear what mission
the U.S. military drone was un-
dertaking, but the U.S. military
has deployed drones and air-
strikes in previous years to target
Yemen’s al-Qaeda affiliate,
known as al-Qaeda in the Ara-
bian Peninsula.
The United States is backing a
Saudi-led coalition of regional
Sunni countries that is fighting
the Shiite Houthis to help restore
Yemen’s internationally recog-
nized government and stem
Iran’s regional influence. Iran

has denied providing military
and financial backing to the
Houthis.
Tensions between the United
States and Iran have escalated
since the Trump administration
withdrew from an international
pact to contain Iran’s nuclear
capabilities and increased sanc-
tions. That has triggered back-
and-forth accusations between
President Trump and senior Ira-
nian officials, as well as tit-for-tat
attacks and seizures involving oil
tankers in the Persian Gulf and
the Mediterranean Sea.
In June, Iran’s Islamic Revolu-
tionary Guard Corps shot down a
U.S. surveillance drone in the
Strait of Hormuz, further height-
ening tensions.
sudarsan.raghavan@washpost.com
missy.ryan@washpost.com

Ryan reported from Washington.

U.S. military drone is shot down over northern Yemen


OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS
A U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone in Afghanistan. The downing Tuesday
in Yemen was the second such attack there in three months.
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