March 8, 2013
Erica Caple James and three of her cousins traveled from four different states to meet up in Albemarle County. The relatives are descendants of the Sammons family, buried in a cemetery off Lambs Road.
But the burial ground is facing the chance of being uprooted, after The Virginia Department of Transportation, who now owns the land, discovered that the 19th century African-American cemetery is in the path of the Route 29 Western Bypass project.
"I'm an anthropologist, and I'm a scholar. I study families. I study the culture of honoring the dead," said James. "Personally, I know that the intent of this family was to stay together throughout eternity."
Now, James is dissecting her own family's history as a decision is yet to be made whether to reroute the bypass or move the graves.
Four headstones are visible through the snow, but James believes at least 8 to 10 people are buried in the Sammons cemetery. She says the family that rests beneath the ground played an important role in helping former slaves and other African-Americans flourish under difficult circumstances.
"The cemetery is of a prominent family of color who were very much involved in promoting education in the area. They were business people," said James. "We believe that the patriarch of the family, Rawlings Sammons, who used to own the Hydraulic Mills after the Civil War, we think that he's probably buried there."
In January, VDOT told the Newsplex that it is not uncommon for cemeteries and small family burial plots to surface during the design and construction of highway projects. Since the discovery, VDOT has been working with other agencies to evaluate the cemetery's historical significance.
But James says not enough was done to reach out to Sammons descendants. She says an archaeologist hired to assess the cemetery contacted only one relative.
"My understanding is they asked her, 'Where do you want the bodies to go?'" said James. "They made no other effort to contact any other family members or to ask our opinion about, should this even occur?"
James was tipped off by a local historian and has since contacted other descendants to mount a response and ask that the cemetery not be touched.
James has no problem with the construction of the bypass itself, but she says, because it is already difficult for African Americans to trace their roots, demolishing a standing piece of history would be a shame.
"To have a place of our own that we can come to and take care of, it's invaluable. But to know that it's facing destruction, I can't tell you how horrible a feeling it is," she says.
On Friday, VDOT released this statement to the Newsplex:
"The Virginia Department of Transportation is sensitive to the needs and concerns of the family members involved. There are policies and procedures established by Federal regulations to research and evaluate the significance of family burial grounds such as the Sammons cemetery. That process is currently under way; VDOT is working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to determine the appropriate action."
James is not convinced the company researching the family's significance got off to a good start.
"If they were serious about assessing the historic value of the cemetery, I think that they would have made a stronger effort to try to contact as many descendants as possible to be able to illicit oral history, to find out what documentation people may have," said James.
James is asking anyone with more information or stories about the Hydraulic area to contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A VDOT spokesman could not say when a final decision will be made, but James says the results of a second assessment are expected mid-March.