A federal official’s announcement last week that a cemetery and house site in the path of the planned Western Bypass is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places has become the latest hang-up for the road project, and has some questioning the process the Virginia Department of Transportation used to evaluate the property in the first place.
Keeper of the National Register Carol Shull determined the cemetery off Lambs Road in Albemarle County was eligible because it held the graves of “persons of local transcendent importance”: Jesse Scott Sammons and his son-in-law Dr. George Rutherford Ferguson, 19th-century landowners and prominent members of the Hydraulic Mills community, a prosperous enclave of free blacks now partly inundated by the Rivanna Reservoir.
Shull’s report underscores historical context. Despite the oppression of African-Americans in post-Civil War Virginia, the two men “achieved professional careers and provided distinguished leadership and service to their communities,” she wrote.
Read the full text of Shull’s report here:
She also roundly rejected arguments from the Federal Highway Administration and VDOT that the house on the property lacked significance and couldn’t be conclusively tied to the cemetery. Even with alterations and an addition, she wrote, “the Sammons family would still recognize their home.”
As a result, it’s not only the gravesite that was deemed eligible, but a large portion of the original 28-acre farmstead.
For Sammons descendant Erica Caple James, an MIT anthropologist who has worked with local historians for nine months to argue for protection for the state-owned site, the eligibility determination was a major validation.
“To see the Keeper of the National Register so meticulously and eloquently outline how and why this history is important and what it means to our national history was incredibly moving,” she said. “It made me feel that the struggle was so worth it.”
Exactly what effect the Keeper’s determination will have on the Bypass isn’t clear. The law says VDOT must consider the impacts of the project on properties deemed eligible for consideration in the National Register, so whether the Sammons property makes it onto the rolls of registered places doesn’t actually matter. It’s still back to the drawing board for VDOT, which must further amend its latest Environmental Assessment of the project to include a new memorandum of agreement among stakeholders, including living Sammons descendants. The FHWA must then approve the amended assessment.
“We have yet to sit down and talk to everyone, so I don’t want to speculate on what the outcome may be,” said VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter.
Steve Thompson, a Charlottesville archaeological consultant who joined other local historians in calling on state and federal officials to examine the property more closely, said the Keeper’s decision highlighted problems with the way the state has assessed land it needs for the Bypass.
VDOT, its cultural resources consultants, and FHWA staff argued “strenuously and repeatedly” that the site didn’t rise to the level of an eligible property, Thompson said, but their arguments were ultimately invalidated.
“My question is, how is it possible for all these people to be so wrong?” he said. It makes him question VDOT’s motives. “It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the whole process is somewhat compromised, that they’re letting other things cloud their judgment,” he said.