Charlottesville archaeologists uncover local Black stories

Matt Reeves is a jovial Ph.D. who travels the grounds of Montpelier on a mountain bike, wearing a knapsack. When I met him at the presidential estate he was standing near a team of seven or eight workers. They milled about like a road crew, not 200 yards from where President Madison once penned the Constitution. Between the house and the steeplechase grounds was a small excavator. Its operator sunk the machine’s claw into earth near the edge of the road, and lifted a fat slab of blacktop. The concrete broke into a massive puzzle piece.

Reeves stepped forward from the crew, trowel in hand. He knelt and began to stab the blank slate of dirt before him. If I had seen Reeves doing this anywhere else, he would have looked nuts. But I had gone to Montpelier with a specific question in mind: What is the first step toward recreating history? Before he had the chance to say anything, he had already answered my question.

Reeves, who is the head  archaeologist at Montpelier, was initiating the process of restoring a wooden gate that, in Madison’s day, framed the estate against its mountain backdrop—Marion DuPont Scott, one of the estate’s later owners, had apparently run over the gate with her car in the 1960s. There had been some historical record, in the form of landscape plans and journal entries, but the only cold, hard evidence as to where the gate had been had registered in the soil.

It’s the same imperative—to understand history by looking first at its minutiae—that guides archaeology at places like Montpelier and Monticello; digging in the dirt is often the first step towards recreating history. But history lines the dirt at places that don’t have the luxury of being roped off—at places like parking lots and future sites of subdivisions. It’s there that the crucial physical link between past and present is often destroyed.

Archeologists at Montpelier spent a portion of the fall digging through the Madison family’s middens­­—trash, really—that had accumulated outside a landscaping wall. The Montpelier Foundation is in the process of restoring the estate to the conditions that James and Dolly Madison knew.

Efforts to preserve history continue nonetheless. “I think that now more than ever there’s a tremendous effort locally to certainly become aware of local African-American history to then, through things like educational programs and national register nominations, raise awareness locally,” says Eryn Brennan, a County Planner and director of Preservation Piedmont

Rio Road in particular, just off of Route 29, is one of many areas where the desire to grow our communities has faced off with the desire to preserve the past. Nowhere is this more clear than at Free State, a rural black community that by 1833 had a population of as many as 450. The settlement began in the late 18th century when Amy Farrow Bowles, a free African-American woman, bought more than 200 acres of land. The land there was unoccupied for years, until Stonehaus, the development company, bought and developed it into the Dunlora subdivision in the 1990s. 

Eight or nine years ago, Aaron Wunsch and his wife Jillian, a staff archaeologist, discovered the site while walking around the neighborhood, where they were house-sitting for a friend. 

“I played the role of trespasser, and my wife was the archaeologist,” said Wunsch. They explored the community’s remains and found houses, still standing near Dunlora, that had survived from the turn of the 20th century. That was about it. 

The two were aware of the site’s history and used their network—Jillian works at Monticello and Wunsch with Preservation Piedmont—to drum up support for the site. The support spelled extra pressure for Frank Stoner, the developer behind Dunlora who planned a new development called Belvedere there, to hire archaeologists to explore the site. Stoner then contacted Steve Thompson of Rivanna Archaeological Services to conduct further research. They found Free State community ran between the present day sites of Dunlora and Belvedere, which had not yet been built. They also found on the property the Bowles family cemetery, which holds between 60 and 70 bodies. The only legible gravestone that was uncovered on the property read, “Mary Bowles, Died Dec. 6, 1882.” 

But not all of the Free State’s artifacts emerged intact. Very little work was done before Dunlora was developed in the early to mid ’90s, says Thompson. “It’s clear that there were probably other archaeological sites within what’s now Belvedere, but chances are that with the building on that site, that very little of significance survives,” Thompson says.

Development continues within the Belvedere community. But after pressure came from the outside, Stoner recognized that the historic site he was building on was worthy of preservation. The community’s plans changed accordingly: According to Stoner, “It’s part of our objective to weave its history into the fabric of the community.” Roads in the development are all named after members of the Bowles family, or after people from the Free State Community. (One road is named after Sally Hemings’ sister Critta, who lived at Free State.) The Bowles family cemetery, which holds between 60 and 70 bodies, will be set aside as parkland.

Wunsch says that, although he wishes Stonehaus didn’t put houses “literally on top of bodies that are buried there,” the developers did the right thing. “I think people take it much more seriously when you have not just text on a sign, but an actual piece of the built environment. It has a much more profound impact—tells a much more significant story.” He points to Civil War battlefields as an example: “The mere fact that those fields are there makes you think, this is a place where something happened.”

 

“We work in a lot of different contexts,” says Thompson. The work that they did at Free State and the Venable Lane site, near the University of Virginia, is “very different.” Ben Ford, Thompson’s partner at RAS, says that the Free State community presents a historical counterpoint to the Venable Lane site just south of the University of Virginia. 

Montpelier’s head archaeologist Matt Reeves examines the wall of a study pit near the Madison estate. In the center of the pit is a brick wall that framed the property in the 19th century.

Like Bowles at Free State, Catherine “Kitty” Foster was a free African-American woman. She purchased the property in 1833 for $450. Over the next near century, the land nearby—which was first occuppied by those who built the University—was subdivided into lots owned mostly by freed African-Americans. Foster herself continued to work for the university as a seamstress and laundress. 

The story of the Venable Lane site’s rediscovery began in 1993, when bulldozers razed an empty stretch of land at the corner of Emmet Street and Jefferson Park Avenue to make way for a parking lot. The only structure demolished was a brick house built in the 20th century. When the house fell, construction workers didn’t notice much of anything—but later research revealed a discolored rectangle of dirt: it was a grave. The one grave quickly turned into 12. That they weren’t found likely means that they had been intentionally covered by one of the property’s later occupants.  

The university quickly convened a task force. They hired Drake Patten, a graduate archaeology student, to use field schools and to explore the site. Students and community members dug together and located the primary Foster residence and collected, cleaned and stored thousands of artifacts. Ford told C-VILLE at the time that the “cemetery represents a community cemetery that may have had individuals buried there from a postbellum community called Canada—and that’s a direct reference to our neighbor to the north.” 

“Even in oral history, we weren’t finding stories about a community called Canada.” Patten says. “I think unpacking it the way we did, through  archaeology, I think it was a huge opportunity for the community to look at historic race relations, to consider the written history about the university, to think—O.K., what community built the university?”

The Kitty Foster home and graveyard markers, which will be part of the South Lawn, is a “rare opportunity” to have an intact  archaeological site, UVA Landscape Architect Mary Hughes said last year. “And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It tells us about African-American life in early Charlottesville.”

It also told us a few things about the history of the University. When the Rotunda was being rebuilt after a fire in 1896, for example, the University’s rector asked an architectural firm to close off the Lawn’s south end to block “the area immediately to the south of the University’s land and in full view … filled with unsightly houses.” 

How was a freed black woman able to buy an expensive property in the antebellum South, at a time when blacks weren’t even allowed to congregate? Genealogical research points to a simple answer: The larger Charlottesville community accepted Kitty Foster as white.

The site was instrumental locally in “starting the conversation, which is now quite common, about what people call ‘passing,’” says Patten, which even in the ’90s “wasn’t happening publicly in the way that it is today.”

“What began as an archaeology project has really influenced in a substantive way UVA’s thinking about that site,” Wunsch says. 

 

In 1860, more than 12,000 freed slaves lived in Albemarle County. That means Free State, with less than  500 inhabitants, and Canada, the even smaller community that surrounded the Foster site, are likely the tip of the iceberg. What’s the use in seeking out these artifacts? Even if archaeology alone will not be able to answer that question, it doesn’t help that the odds are against survival for many sites in the area.

Steve Currie, an archeologist at Montpelier, holds a portion of a porcelain plate from China. The piece was part of the family dinnerware set, and was found in a midden site that the family used near the turn of the 19th century. 

Some weeks after my visit to Montpelier I visited the basement office of Rivanna Archaeological Services. Ford has been working on the didactic signage for the Foster site’s memorial, a shadow catcher that will be built on an acre above the Foster family graveyard. He had in his office a variety of artifacts that had been sifted from the dirt, like 19th-century toothbrushes and combs, buttons, and bits of broken bottles with the labels still legible. Most surprising about each of the 150-year-old artifacts was how they had been restored to almost new. The objects that were broken looked as if they had been broken yesterday. 

I recalled there what Reeves, at Montpelier, had told me about how artifacts are processed: “What we’ll do with all the artifacts is that we’ll bring them to the lab, we’ll wash all the artifacts, we’ll catalog them and we label them, and then we cross-mend them and restore them back to vessels. And once we’ve restored them as vessels we analyze them as objects, as part of the [Madison’s] household possessions.” There were sacks of dirt that lined the walls at Montpelier’s lab, which was packed to the gills with artifacts like these. Piecing together a story, it seems, is an enormous amount of work. Nonetheless, efforts to discover Black history continue in the area. Reeves said that excavation will begin on slave quarters at Montpelier at the end of winter. The quarters fell where they stood, and were covered in sod. The result is that they’re like time capsules. “They’re remarkably well-preserved,” he said. At the Jefferson School on Fourth Street, Preservation Piedmont is involved in efforts to preserve oral history.

But there are failures. The Vinegar Hill neighborhood, which was destroyed in a wave of urban renewal, is regarded by preservationists as a grave failure. Historical evidence at the Foster site showed that property that was owned by antebellum African-Americans tended to be demolished once the property was sold to whites. Present day, the unwitting destruction of artifacts continues whenever an excavator sinks into the ground.

“The more you dig, a lot of the times it’s not that you have all your questions answered,” Reeves says. “It’s that your questions get more refined. And that gets you more towards the final product.” In the end, it seems, it’s how deep you’re willing to dig that determines how much you’ll find.

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