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In one unusual Virginia neighborhood, roots stretch to some of the earliest Africans in America

Margaret Wilson, 80, on Aug. 17 during the annual Aberdeen Gardens fish fry in Hampton, Va. (Ryan M. Kelly for The Washington Post)

A previous version of this story included a headline that incorrectly said that the roots of residents in a Virginia neighborhood stretch to the first Africans in America. In fact, those roots stretch to the first documented enslaved Africans who arrived in the English colonies 400 years ago this month.

HAMPTON, Va. — Sweat and gossip flowed as neighbors waited to place orders at the back window of the house: Fish platter. Fish sandwich. Some of Miss Margaret’s homemade cake.

Margaret Wilson presided over the cheerful chaos of the Aberdeen Gardens fish fry from a folding chair. At 80, she holds special prominence, one of the few surviving original residents of a community unlike any other in the country.

Built in the 1930s, Hampton’s Aberdeen Gardens was the first federal housing project created for African Americans under the New Deal. It was the only one designed by a black architect, overseen by a black supervisor and built by black laborers.

Later this week, Virginians will gather just a few miles away at Old Point Comfort to mark the arrival, 400 years ago this month, of the first Africans brought to the English colonies against their will.

While Virginia is rich with carefully preserved history, from reconstructed Colonial villages to Civil War battlefields, the artifacts of African 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 Aberdeen Gardens.

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The community’s roots span centuries, possibly all the way to those first Africans. The generations 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 themselves, are fighting to keep the legacy alive — not just the collection 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 assistant 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 historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander, “is something that didn’t get erased.”

* * *

Margaret Wilson’s grandparents 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, unfinished roads. The excitement of the tidy brick house, the hardwood 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 Elementary 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 provisions at Point Comfort in 1619. About how those and others who followed settled all around the area, most bound into slavery.

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How those slaves built the stone Fort Monroe on Point Comfort in the 1830s. And how in 1861 three black men — Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend — escaped white slave owners and demanded the federal troops at Fort Monroe give them refuge.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler declared 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 Proclamation aloud to the former slaves.

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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 Hampton University.

And in the depths of Jim Crow and the Depression, leaders at Hampton Institute applied to 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 dockyards.

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, Virginia’s first black congressman and the first dean of Howard University Law School.

Aberdeen Gardens was so attractive — 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 ticker-tape parade down Aberdeen 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. When Claude Vann Jr. died in 2013, his family had the hearse carry him through the neighborhood one last time.

“My dad was a true Aberdeener,” the son said. Retired from the Air Force, Claude Vann III, 64, owns several of the old houses and rents them to younger families.

Vann spent his whole life hearing 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 children, 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 development closed in, the neighborhood won state and national historic landmark status.

“The fact that the community plan, architectural design, site clearing, building construction, road work, and management was performed by blacks, many of whom would stay on to live at the settlement, sets Aberdeen Garden apart from all other [New Deal] projects,” historians from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources wrote in the application. “A government funded project ‘by blacks — for blacks,’ a motto that the Hampton sponsoring group adopted, was unprecedented in the South as well as the United States.”

* * *

About 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 – which the neighborhood bought on its own -- was renovated as offices, and the city purchased the other so the association could restore it as a museum. Neighbors have furnished it with original furniture and appliances from the 1930s.

Aberdeen Gardens hosts programs for schoolchildren and sessions for each new graduating class of the city police academy, teaching about the neighborhood’s origins. At the fish fry Saturday, the mayor, the former mayor, the commonwealth’s attorney, 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 history 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 anniversary approaching, researchers identified more than 100 unmarked burial places in the old cemetery near the neighborhood. Some are thought to date to the 1700s. Local lore holds that William 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 childhood in Aberdeen Gardens.

A few months ago, the friends made a pilgrimage to see it for themselves. They wound up taking 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 generations who dreamed and accomplished and built a society. Lawyers, 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 Aberdeeners talked and laughed around her, “was a starting point.”

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