The Virginia Department of Transportation has cleared another speed bump in its drive to build a bypass to Route 29 through Albemarle County.
Those who oppose the 29 bypass have made many arguments. Some think the project, which VDOT predicts will cost about $240 million is too expensive for the limited time drivers would save. Others worry about the impact on health from a six-mile road that would pass by six schools, while a third group feared trucks with hazardous cargo could pass too close to the city’s water supply.
Then came another objection – this one from historians. It turns out there’s a house in the road’s path – once occupied by descendants of the Hemmings family of Monticello, and a cemetery where dozens of prominent African-Americans were laid to rest.
Erica Caple James is an associate professor of anthropology at MIT and a descendent of Rollin Sammons, who along with his wife owned the town of Hydraulic Mills – a prosperous community of freed blacks before the Civil War and former slaves afterward.
“This is a map that one of our members made of the land holdings – all the green area, you can see how there was a two mile ban of African-American land ownership -- farms along this stretch.”
Cinder Stanton, who recently retired as senior historian at Monticello, was thrilled to discover remnants of Hydraulic Mills. She and other Central Virginia historians worked frantically to assemble a report for the state on the significance of this site.
“I counted up how many e-mails I received in the last four weeks. It’s over a thousand.”
Professor James says the Sammons log house and the cemetery are especially precious in light of how little remains of African-American history. Most of Hydraulic Mills was destroyed in 1966, when Albemarle County created the Rivanna Reservoir.
“You know there was no way to find out more information – either archeologically or otherwise, because it’s been drowned, and then to now know that another public works project is potentially destroying the last connection that we had to my ancestors has been incredibly distressing.”
In truth, the destruction of Hydraulic Mills began long before the dam was built.
“ It began to dwindle in the 30’s and 40’s as many people left this hostile environment of the Jim Crow South to go north and make better lives for themselves and their families.”
Cinder Stanton believes what remains could be the center of a new historic site for Virginia – a place where school kids, their teachers and parents could begin to appreciate the contribution made by African Americans. She and her colleagues have applied to put the remnants of Hydraulic Mills on the National Register of Historic Places.
VDOT, which once thought this could be a problem now says its contractors can work around it.
“The Sammons family cemetery will remain in place and will not be disturbed by the project. We have not done the detailed design work, but we do feel confident that we can preserve the cemetery within the highway right of way and outside the construction limit, so that it would not be disturbed during the construction of the project.”
VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter says the department is still trying to satisfy the Federal Highway Administration with regard to environmental concerns. He could not say how soon construction might begin.
The pressure for this project came largely from business interests in Lynchburg and Danville, while the political impetus came from Virginia’s Republican governor.
Some critics of the proposed bypass hope the project can be stopped with the election of a Democrat in November.