Of Heirs, Houses, History and Highways

Posted on Mar 11, 2013

On January 29, 2013 I broke the news on my radio program that an historic African-American home site and family cemetery lay in the direct path of the controversial Western Bypass around Charlottesville, Virginia.

An archaeological team, contracted by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), had studied the site and concluded that neither the home nor the cemetery were historically significant enough to preserve. The home would be razed and the bodies moved.

Once they were alerted by local historians familiar with the project, descendants of those buried in this cemetery were confused, shocked and outraged.

What is perhaps most troubling is the fact that the road had been designed to go around (so as not to disturb) a pet cemetery— but is slated to go right through an African-American cemetery.

Beginning with the interview on January 29, I have done my best to explore this issue and keep it in the spotlight. I have and continue to speak with local historians, elected officials, and family members.

We have learned quite a bit about the family and this area. We have learned that this land was the home of the Sammons family, a prominent African-American family (related to the Hemingses of Monticello), leaders in business and education in the 19th century. Their story is, in fact, tremendously significant.

I have taken to referring to this home site, and the Hydraulic village of which it was a part, as Albemarle County’s Vinegar Hill.

I have no axe to grind about the bypass. I do believe it’s grossly expensive and a powerful example of government fiscal irresponsibility— all the more fascinating that it is being championed by conservative Republicans, locally and in Richmond.

But Charlottesville needs a bypass— to the west and to the east. I believe that is true. For many people, this proposed route, expensive and deficient in design though it might be, is just the first necessary step.

But should its design mean we have to move the bodies of those deemed “historically insignificant?” That is an entirely different question from, should we build the road?

For me, there are fascinating issues and questions at play here. Are the animal bodies in the pet cemetery more important than those of African-Americans? If not, then why not preserve the more important site? What does it mean to say a family is historically insignificant? Would the state government so cavalierly dismissed the Sammons family as insignificant if they were white? What cultural and legal obstacles were in place in 19th century Virginia that may have prevented countless African Americans from achieving what some might deem today as “historical significance?”

On this page you will be able to listen to podcasts of all the interviews I have conducted on this topic. I will continue to update this page with additional podcasts following future interviews. Conversations took place on my afternoon talk radio program, Charlottesville— Right Now! and broadcast live on NewsRadio 1070 WINA and streamed live online at wina.com. Beginning with the August 28, 2013 conversation, the conversations were broadcast live on my program “Inside Charlottesville” on WCHV 107.5 FM and streamed live online at wchv.com.

UPDATE, March 17, 2013: descendants of the Sammons family have created a Facebook page to help get out information about this story. Click here to visit that page, which includes the first-available photos of the cemetery.

UPDATE: March 27, 2013: We learned today that VDOT has recommended re-routing the road so as to preserve the integrity of the cemetery and NOT move the bodies. We don’t know yet exactly what that means. They say the cemetery will continue to be in the road’s “right-of-way.” Exactly what that means is still a mystery. That’s the somewhat good news. The bad news is that they somehow concluded that neither the cemetery nor the Sammons home site are of national historical significance (while comparable sites in the City of Charlottesville are already on the National Register).

UPDATE: August 28, 2013: The U.S. Department of the Interior has released its finding that the home, cemetery, and surrounding property is ELIGIBLE to be included on the National Register of Historic Places— which contradicts the argument that has been made by VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. Such a designation would bring to this site significant federal preservation protection. But will the state of Virginia, which now owns the property, nominate the site for the National Register? Or will they stick to their plan to use the site for a highway? Listen to the August 28 interview with Professor James below for more details.

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1. Charlottesville City Councilor Dede Smith: Monday, January 29, 2013.

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2. Attorney Morgan Butler, Southern Environmental Law Center: Monday, February 4, 2013.

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3. Dede Smith: Tuesday, February 12, 2013.

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4. Sammons family descendant, Professor Erica Caple James, in her first public interview on the subject: Monday, February 18, 2013.

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5. Cinder Stanton, former Senior Historian at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello: Monday, February 25, 2013.

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6. Cinder Stanton: Monday, March 4, 1013.

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7. Professor James: Thursday, March 7, 2013.

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8. Dede Smtih: Tuesday, March 12, 2013.

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9. Dede Smith: Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

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10. Professor James: Tuesday, April 2, 2013.

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11. Professor James: Wednesday, August 28, 2013.

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