March 27, 2013
When the Virginia Department of Transportation stumbled upon an African-American cemetery in the path of the Route 29 Western Bypass, the organization had to decide to move the cemetery or move the road.
VDOT has ultimately decided to re-route the road and keep the Sammons family cemetery in place.
"Any time VDOT can avoid them, I think, is a win-win for the community and the family together," said Steven Meeks, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society. "But sometimes, it's just unavoidable."
After stumbling upon a cemetery that, in a letter, VDOT says contains 10 to 15 graves, VDOT initially hoped to relocate it. But once VDOT representatives spoke with descendants of the Sammons family, the group had a change of heart.
"VDOT recognizes and respects the interests and concerns of the family descendants and other members of the community in having the cemetery preserved," spokesman Lou Hatter said in an email.
"In this case, since the shovels, the dozers have not started plowing a path, I think there's still the opportunity to adjust the route, and that I would appreciate VDOT's efforts in trying to do that," Meeks said.
Hatter said an additional environmental assessment for the road will not be necessary. Details are vague about any future roadway alignment in the area, but VDOT said it's "confident that the cemetery can be preserved intact within the right of way and outside the construction limits."
That would also include a historic house owned by Jesse Sammons, an influential African-American leader in the 1800s.
"I am concerned that the house associated with the cemetery can also be preserved," Meeks said. "I think they tell a story together. To see one go or both go, I think, hurts our heritage in general."
While no firm plans are in place, VDOT said the family will have access to the gravesite once construction is complete.
A descendant of the family said she doesn't want to comment on VDOT's decision just yet until she gets more details from the department on exact plans for the cemetery.
VDOT hasn't released a timeframe yet for the updated plans.