McKinley Harris, 72, was about 6 years old when he first learned about the burial grounds in Brown Grove, on land where a $175 million Wegmans distribution center is now slated to rise.
“Our grandparents, other older people would tell us about all the slave graveyards behind our house,” he said. “They were all over that area.”
Descendants of those who settled the rural Hanover County community learn their story as children by re-enacting the brush arbor revivals that their ancestors would hold. The revivals were outdoor church gatherings originating in late 18th-century America.
Over the past 60 years, development increasingly has hemmed in the Reconstruction-era settlement, where many residents can trace their lineage to a matriarch who was born into slavery in 1846.
First, Interstate 95 encroached. The Hanover County airport opened in 1971. Suburban development, a landfill and other projects all crept in. Now, the 1.7 million-square-foot distribution center.
“What people say every time they put something new here is that it feels like we won’t have a community after a while because it will all be industrial,” said Harris’ daughter, Bonnie Cotman, 49. “It’s like [Hanover County] is looking at the tax dollars and not the lives.”
Harris added: “It looks like they have a goal to get rid of this community.”
The prospect of staving off the project, which the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain says will bring 700 jobs, has brought the African American community together with mostly white residents of nearby suburban neighborhoods whose arguments against Wegmans have centered on quality-of-life issues.
Cotman and Nita Cash fear this could be the final straw. They question whether their community’s next generation will want to stay and raise their own children there if the ancestral land is too close to a busy, 24-hour warehouse complex.
Although an archaeological study in 2019 did not locate remains on the land, experts say more work is needed to be sure.
While the county cleared way for the project in May by approving zoning amendments on the 217-acre parcel Wegmans is eyeing, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must still approve wetland impact permits for the project.
Earlier this month, the board of trustees for the Brown Grove Baptist Church and the Hanover NAACP sent letters to the Corps of Engineers, alleging a lack of engagement with the community. Both requested a more thorough study of the site and the project’s impact on the environment and the community.
“This is an unacceptable inequality that requires resolution,” the NAACP letter says.
While residents of the Fox Head and Milestone neighborhoods say they are advocating for the entire surrounding community, residents of Brown Grove say they’ve been battling against development long before this project arose.
They say the Brown Grove Baptist Church and the shared lineage of many of its congregants have kept the community stitched together.
“We used to walk to church for everything: service, revivals and vacation Bible school. And it was always with family,” said Cash, 60. “Those are my some of my fondest memories of growing up as a child.”
In order to proceed with the project as drawn, the Board of Supervisors in May approved zoning amendments to let Wegmans exceed certain land-use restrictions Hanover adopted in 1995 when previous development interests led to pushback.
A small group of residents from the suburban neighborhoods near the project site filed suit last month challenging the board’s approval, saying it was inappropriate because the COVID-19 pandemic and state-ordered restrictions on gatherings limited participation in the public hearing prior to the vote.
While much of the protest over the project has centered on complaints about traffic congestion, noise, lighting and property values, the county also agreed to remove a restriction on the removal of any graves found during construction.
In reports to the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, county planning staff endorsed the change, citing a 2019 archaeological study conducted on behalf of Wegmans that found no evidence of graves in the project site. The amended zoning proffer says that if remains are found during construction, the company would move the graves in accordance with state regulations under the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Even if there’s no evidence, residents of Brown Grove feel it is wrong. Cotman questioned whether the company would keep its word if remains are found.
“What’s going to happen with all those graves we’ve always been told are there? What are they going to do with our ancestors and the history that’s in the area?” Cotman said.
Though only a few residents of the suburban neighborhoods on the other side of Sliding Hill have mentioned those issues in public meetings over the past six months, Cotman, McKinley and Cash said their neighbors across Sliding Hill Road also have something to lose.
Chris French, who recently joined the Hanover NAACP and co-signed the letter it sent to the Corps of Engineers earlier this month, said he and other white neighbors in the nearby suburban developments have been careful to not speak on behalf of Brown Grove.
“When it comes down to it, Brown Grove should tell its own story,” he said. “While their concerns and plight is of consequence for everybody, no one wants to be seen as taking advantage of another group for personal gain.”
The advocacy of the wider community and the recent announcement about the end of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project has encouraged many, French said.
After the announcement this month that Dominion Energy is abandoning the gas pipeline project, activists said it was a victory for environmental justice, as a similar African American community in Buckingham County known as Union Hill is no longer endangered.
French, who has a background in stormwater management, said the concerns over environmental justice and the potential impact on protected wetlands in the area could be pivotal in determining the fate of the project.
A Corps of Engineers notice for the federal and state wetlands permit applications explains it will evaluate the request based on a number of factors, including “general environmental concerns,” “economics,” “conservation” and “cultural values.”
“It’s controversial, no doubt. They all have a chance to affect the project,” said Elaine Holley, an official from the Corps of Engineers who is reviewing the Wegmans permit application.
Holley said the development is estimated to impact about 7 acres of wetlands, though French and others contend that is a severe underestimation based on her analysis model.
Holley justified the use of the so-called mosaic analysis, saying the topography of the site makes it difficult to assess and that conditions can change in short periods of time because of weather conditions.
Despite the criticism against that method, Holley said more than 3 acres of impact is significant, and that her office is working with Wegmans to identify how to minimize the project’s impact. She said the company is proposing to purchase wetland mitigation credits to offset the environmental damage.
As for the graves, she also said there’s no evidence that they exist based on previous archaeological studies. She noted that the studies have been limited in scope and that the forested environment and large size of the lot make it difficult to conduct a more thorough examination.
She did not give a timeline for when a decision might be made for the project. French predicted that it may not happen until the end of the year.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will hold a virtual public hearing on the state application at 6:30 p.m. Monday.