Unlocking a Unique History

In the 1990s, the Petersburg Garden Club saved from obscurity an extraordinary collection made during the 1930s. Originally stored in fourteen brown scrapbooks, the collection consists of 325 pressed, dried plant specimens and 238 watercolors depicting most of the same species. The captivating paintings were the work of Bessie Niemeyer Marshall, a talented Virginia artist who received scant recognition during her lifetime. Most significantly, the collection was the legacy of a Depression-era work relief program, funded through the Works Progress Administration, that sought to document the variety of species being preserved in Lee Memorial Park, a wildflower and bird sanctuary located in Petersburg Virginia. Dimly remembered and in fragile condition, the paintings and specimens had been housed for almost fifty years in the Petersburg Public Library. Their rediscovery unlocked a small but rich chapter of American women’s history and Petersburg’s African American history.