Published April 26, 2024

By Lyra McKee

A new exhibit at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, supported in part by a Virginia Humanities grant, sheds light on the gendered labor that went into creating Petersburg’s 330-acre Legends Park through a selection of never-before-seen artwork.

On view now until September 6, Women’s Work presents a selection of preserved herbarium (pressed plant) specimens and botanical watercolor illustrations from the Lee Park Collection. Previously kept private, the collection is a result of the Lee Memorial Park Wildflower and Bird Sanctuary project, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1940 in Petersburg, Virginia, as part of the Second New Deal.

The project’s purpose was to preserve the local native plants, focusing especially on wildflowers, while also documenting the development of Lee Park (renamed the Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Sanctuary in July 2020). In retrospect, however, the project was also historically and socially significant as a paid government project conceived, planned, and executed by women.

Although the project was driven by women’s work, the responsibilities and recognition for that work were not equitably distributed among all the women who contributed to the project. Mary Donald Claiborne Holden and Bessie Niemeyer Marshall, two white women who supervised and provided botanical illustrations for the project, respectively, are the two women most recognized for their contributions to the project.

And yet, the intense manual labor of clearing ravines, building more than 10 miles of trails, constructing bridges and benches for the enjoyment of the Park’s visitors, and transplanting more than 365,000 plant specimens was performed primarily by Black women. Unlike Holden and Marshall, many of the women who did this integral but exhausting labor for the project received no recognition for their contributions.

Mary Bell Focie, a Black woman whose role with the project involved planting honeysuckle for erosion control, remarked that it “was particularly strenuous [labor], and sometimes it got very cold. For many years afterward, I didn’t want to hear the name Lee Park, because it reminded me of freezing with a shovel in our hands.”

“It’s been a labor of love … We are just really thrilled to be able to bring this collection to light.”

Kristin Thoroman, VP of Learning and Engagement at Lewis Ginter

For Kristin Thoroman, the Botanical Garden’s Vice President of Learning and Engagement, Women’s Work is a tribute to the women whose labor made the beautiful Legends Park possible.

“It’s been a labor of love between the staff and volunteers and with the support of Virginia Humanities,” she said. “We are just really thrilled to be able to bring this collection to light.”

To help bring the exhibit to even more Virginians, the Garden staff digitized the collection and created a virtual version of the exhibit, accessible now through 2024. The text of the interpretive panels guiding visitors through the exhibit will also be available on the website and translated into Spanish for increased accessibility. The staff expects that the previously private collection will be viewed by over 100,000 visitors in person and online by the end of the year.

In addition to increasing public access to this archival collection and drawing attention to the importance of archival work, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden aims to influence their peers to think differently about the role of botanical archives in relation to social issues.

The confluence of scientifically, artistically, and historically significant specimens and narratives in the Lee Park Collection presents an exciting opportunity to rethink the ways that botanical collections are valued writ large, as well as how they reflect the biases of the humans who assemble and study them.

Photo of women workers constructing the wildflower and bird sanctuary at Lee Memorial Park (now Petersburg Legends Memorial Park), WPA Record (March 1937). Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
Photo of women workers constructing the wildflower and bird sanctuary at Lee Memorial Park (now Petersburg Legends Memorial Park), WPA Record (March 1937). Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

Membership Operations Coordinator Gina Liberti, who is coordinating the effort to digitize the Women’s Work exhibit, finds the project most compelling because of the story behind the Lee Park Collection.

“The way Women’s Work covers the untold stories of these women is just fantastic,” she said. “Drawing attention to their work, especially that of the Black women who got little to no recognition for it at the time, was a big motivator. The marriage of the collection and the story makes for a great exhibit.”

Exhibit Info

Women’s Work is on display at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Lora M. Robins Library now through September 6, 2024. The library is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10AM to 4PM. Entrance to the library is included in Garden admission.

Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

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