When Erica Caple James visited Charlottesville three years ago, the MIT anthropology professor was here to talk about the cultural impacts of the loss of the bodies of the victims of Haiti’s 1991 coup d’état. Two weeks ago, she was back, again to speak on behalf of the dead. But this time it was much more personal. The long-forgotten cemetery that holds the graves of her ancestors—the Sammons family, descendants of the Hemings family of Monticello —is directly in the path of the controversial Western Bypass, plans for which are awaiting federal approval. A study of the plot commissioned by the Virginia Department of Transportation and released in January found it didn’t rise to the level of historic importance required for officials to consider rerouting the road around it.
The family scored a victory late last month when the Virginia Department of Historic Resources called the report inadequate and sent VDOT and the company it hired, Cultural Resources, Inc., back to the drawing board with directives to dig deeper into the family history.
No matter what they find, the family might not get what they want: preservation of the plot and a new route for the Bypass, as opposed to relocation of the graves. The final decision is up to the Federal Highway Administration, regardless of what state agencies recommend. But James said the half-acre plot on Lambs Road in Albemarle is worth fighting for.
“It’s not just our history,” she said. “It’s your history. It’s the history of this city, this region, and the nation.”
Jesse Scott Sammons, a prominent member of the Hydraulic Mills community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Photo courtesy of the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, Accession no. 10176.
VDOT has known about the cemetery since at least the mid-1990s, when it first appeared on Bypass plans, spokesman Lou Hatter confirmed. James only learned of its discovery in January when historian and expert on slave life at Monticello Lucia “Cinder” Stanton caught wind of the report and called her.
The plot’s existence might have been news to both of them, but they were already intimately familiar with the lives of the people buried in it. Stanton has been researching the descendants of Monticello’s slave families for decades, and James had spent years digging into her own family’s past. The two scholars suddenly found themselves faced with a missing link.
Jesse Scott Sammons and the family buried with him after his death in 1901 were the most prominent members of the Hydraulic Mills community, a tight-knit collection of prosperous post-Civil War black families clustered along what’s now Hydraulic Road. It was unique in Albemarle County— and rare in the South, said Stanton. Its inhabitants were businesspeople, teachers, doctors.
“You have this very large community of landholding African-Americans in the post-Emancipation years and up into the ’30s,” Stanton said. “The more we look at it and study it, the more remarkable it seems. The importance of the people buried there is extremely significant in terms of the history of this county after the Civil War, and it’s a part of history that’s been hard to grasp.”
That’s partly because very little of it is left. The old Hydraulic Mill itself disappeared under the waters of the Rivanna Reservoir when it was dammed in 1966. The all-black school where Sammons served as principal has been demolished.
But on March 7, his descendants got to see one last tangible remnant: his grave.
“Going through the process of learning about your family is moving in and of itself,” said Sammons descendant Linda McMurdock, a psychologist* and Dean of Students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A day after she flew into Charlottesville with her mother and aunts to tour their ancestral home, she and James sat in the lobby of the Omni Hotel—the site of another local African-American neighborhood all but erased by development—and reflected on the brief but intensely personal history lesson they’d received. “When you hear the common themes, the commonalities—I described it as a visceral experience for me,” McMurdock said. “I felt like I had to be here. I was compelled to come.”
The family is deeply frustrated about the way VDOT has dealt with the discovery of the cemetery. The agency could have disclosed its existence earlier, James said. The researchers commissioned to study it could have done more to learn about the history it held. She knows of two other cemeteries near the Bypass right of way, but not in its path. Both are white graveyards. “The road wasn’t designed to cut through those cemeteries,” she said. “The road is directly coming through ours.”
Even worse, said James, is the fact that VDOT shifted the planned path of the roadway to avoid an SPCA pet cemetery, according to a request for proposals issued by the agency in 2011.
“Presumably, the SPCA didn’t have to demonstrate the national historic significance of their cemetery,” she said.
VDOT is pledging to do what it can to honor the family’s wishes as it moves forward with the Bypass project. “We certainly understand their concerns, and we’re working with them to make sure they’re involved with the process,” said Hatter.
Convincing the state that the cemetery meets eligibility criteria for the National Historic Register is the first step in getting what they want, the family said. But it’s a difficult bar to clear, particularly for African-American sites like the Lambs Road cemetery, because black families often didn’t leave the same written and photographic records that whites did. It’s a persistent problem in making the case for preserving black history, said Stanton.
“I don’t think that there’s anything inherently racist in the methods of how this all came about,” she said. “But functionally, it is unbalanced in terms of what is preserved and what isn’t.”
James said she and her family won’t give up. “We feel a moral obligation, but also a familial obligation to protect these people, because they don’t have a voice. They can’t speak at this point,” she said. “And we stand on their shoulders.”
*The print version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. McMurdock is a psychiatrist. She is a psychologist.