Jesse Scott Sammons was born a free black man in 1853, eight years before the Civil War and 10 years before Emancipation. A descendant of Monticello slave Mary Hemings—sister of Sally—Sammons attended what is now Charlottesville’s Jefferson School. He went on to become the first principal of the first high school for African-American students in Albemarle County. He died in 1901 a respected educator and community leader and was buried on land he owned near the south fork of Ivy Creek. Sammons’ headstone, along with three others, is still standing today in a wooded area that winds among middle class residences on Lambs Road just outside the Charlottesville city limits. It’s also standing in the proposed path of the controversial Western Bypass, and while a state study says the cemetery isn’t important enough to warrant shifting plans for the road, others say differently.
The burial site made news in late January when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) first reported it would have to be moved to a new location to make way for the Bypass, which was first suggested in 1979 and resurrected in 2011. Since the announcement, one of Sammons’ descendants has come forward to ask VDOT to reconsider.
“The Commonwealth knew about the cemetery since before they purchased it, but to my knowledge, no state actor made any effort to systematically try to contact people that are related [to the interred],” said Erica Caple James, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology anthropology professor who is a descendant of the family and in touch with others in the line. “I have written to say, ‘Please take no action until family members have had a chance to weigh in.’”
VDOT spokesperson Lou Hatter said discovering family plots during roadway development is not uncommon, and the department has “policies in place for situations like this.” Locations of historical importance might warrant rerouting a roadway. But if a cemetery in the way of a development is deemed to lack significant historical value—and in some cases even when it does have such distinction—it’s the plot that gets relocated, not the project.
Government agencies use eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places as the benchmark for determining a cemetery’s importance. The firm that surveyed the Sammons plot for VDOT, Cultural Resources, Inc., found the cemetery was not a candidate for listing based on the register’s four criteria: association with significant historical events, association with a person of great importance, exemplification of high-end craftsmanship, or potential for significant archaeological resources.
A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources said the department’s review of the report “is in process.”
“VDOT is working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to complete the cultural resource investigation that is required of all such cemeteries,” Hatter said. “The final determination has not yet been made.”
James, along with several local historians, found fault with parts of the publicly released report, and questioned its methodology. Because African-Americans have lacked the power to impact the written record, she said, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to proving their historical importance.
“It seems to me the report may have been deliberately hastily done so as to produce no other conclusion than that the cemetery—viewed in exclusion of the physical context in which it is located, the history and contributions of the persons buried there and of that specific region of Albemarle County—could not be categorized as possessing ‘national historic value,’” she said.
Cinder Stanton, a retired Monticello historian widely regarded as the top authority on the area’s slave history, has also questioned the validity of the report, calling it “superficial and full of factual errors.”
“This was not just one cemetery and…one man,” Stanton said. “We think it is very important and has a lot of historical significance.”
According to Stanton, Sammons was one player among many in a large commercial hub that served as a safe haven for African-Americans making their way in the new society that emerged after the Civil War, and a member of a family that left an important legacy here. After emancipation, Sammons’ father Rollins was able to purchase a portion of the Hydraulic Mill, the enterprise that gave the community its name. In what’s been called an “imposing” brick home adjacent to the mill, Rollins and Sarah Bell Scott Sammons, a direct descendent of the renown Hemings slave family, raised their 12 children, one of whom was Jesse Scott.
In addition to his career as an educator, Jesse Scott Sammons was active in politics, running for a position in the Virginia General Assembly in 1880. While he failed to win election, he later served as secretary of the local Republican Coalition Club and held a state-level office in the Baptist church. Along the way, Sammons and his wife had two sons and two daughters, including Eva Sammons, who in 1929 married George Ferguson, the first African-American physician to sustain a practice in Albemarle County.
Ferguson’s grave is also located in the Sammons family cemetery in the proposed path of the Western Bypass.
Still, the report commissioned for VDOT says that while the Sammons family itself might well have been historically significant, the physical cemetery isn’t necessarily integral to their story.
“There’s not a malicious intent [toward the family], at least on the part of the agencies,” Department of Historic Resources spokesperson Randy Jones said. “Everybody wants to determine these things up front as part of the environmental review process.”
Hatter said VDOT intends to do all it can going forward to accommodate the desires of the Sammons and Ferguson family members, none of whom other than James have raised concerns with the department.
It’s unclear how the families’ increasing involvement might influence the course of the long and winding story of the Western Bypass, plans for which are still awaiting final approval from the Federal Highway Administration. But Charlottesville City Councilor Dede Smith, a vocal opponent of the roadway, said the more important story is that of the African-American community that once thrived in its proposed path.
“I see the Western Bypass as a great opportunity to tell the story of this community,” she said. “It’s a change in direction of the very negative way the [African-American] story is usually told. I hope it makes people pay attention to this very rich history.”—Shea Gibbs