Wegmans Proposal Might Disturb Slave Graves, Angers Small African American Community in Virginia


By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent

Brown Grove, a small African American enclave in Hanover County and built on the backs of slaves, sits about 17 miles north of Richmond. Its rich – and hardscrabble – history extends back to 1870, and it’s believed most residents there descended from Caroline Dobson Morris, an emancipated Black woman who died in 1944.

Since the end of slavery in America, Virginia officials have neglected Brown Grove, splitting the community about 70 years ago with the construction of Interstate-95, and nearly 40 years ago, a landfill and recycling center for construction materials arrived. Today, the few hundred remaining residents and Morris descendants are in another fight with county and state officials.

The culprit: a 1.1 million-square-foot Wegmans distribution center.

Gov. Ralph Northam and Wegman officials champion the development, arguing it would create hundreds of jobs and add a needed shot in the arm to the local economy. Residents counter that it’s an environmental hazard – truck traffic and a disturbance to the ecosystem – and greedy officials have ignored their pleas.

Among the most pressing objections to the planned Wegmans development: it would disturb a historically Black cemetery and sit atop the graves of former slaves and their descendants.

“The Hanover County NAACP notes a pattern of disenfranchisement of Black communities,” NAACP Chapter President Patricia Hunter-Jordan said in a news release.

“The Brown Grove community will be uprooted by corporate development if we don’t unite to condemn this ongoing practice that tears apart Black communities. We can no longer sit idly by and watch the destruction of our people to appease corporate wealth,” Hunter-Jordan asserted.

In 2019, Wegmans formally announced plans to build a 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center on about 220 acres. Officials placed the cost at $175 million, claiming it would create 700 full-time jobs. When revealing the development would occur at Ashcake Road and Sliding Hill Road, residents in Brown Grove immediately reacted. The NAACP and others filed suit to stop the project. The courts have rejected one filing after the other.

Hunter-Jordan then announced a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Wegmans, and the current property owners, alleging that the project failed to meet environmental justice requirements for engaging Brown Grove. Hunter-Jordan said Wegmans failed to consider alternative sites, and the information they presented about area wetlands proved false.

Earlier this year, the Virginia Water Control Board approved Wegmans’ application to build on wetlands.

In June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted the project a federal permit allowing the development to move forward.

Hunter-Jordan said residents had also objected because they have ancestors buried where Wegmans will build. While Wegmans said it had conducted archaeological studies, it couldn’t locate any graves. Resident questioned the study, many noting that surveyors walked through the area without using the tools and equipment necessary to identify graves.

The NAACP said many believe their ancestors are buried in the wooded area where the distribution center would sit. However, Wegmans has said they did not identify any graves during an archaeological study of the site.

“Part of the property that it’s being built on was considered a historic area,” stated Willnette Jackson, a member of the Brown Grove Baptist Church, which is among those fighting the development.

“There may be unmarked graves on the property,” Jackson stated.

In a preliminary information form provided by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, officials concede there are “15 to 30 marked burials and likely more unmarked.” According to the form, typically, the marked cemeteries chronicle three generations of each family, and earlier generations may not have marked sites.

“While there are known cemeteries in the community, there may be other unmarked areas with burials, and there are several more that are not noted since they were not accessed during the general windshield survey of the area,” the document stated.

The development over the years has impacted family burial sites. In one case, in the Lewistown Road section of the district, the construction of the North Lake business park necessitated the removal of a group of remains away from the community. As a memorial, Brown Grove Church received a marble plaque. Officials relocated the remains to the Roselawn Memory Garden Cemetery, a few miles to the south on Mountain Road in Henrico County.

“The Black community is being targeted,” demanded Brown Grove Baptist Church Deacon Kenny Spurlock.

“Historically also, it has been abused, misused, and looked over time and time and time again,” Spurlock insisted.

Hunter-Jordan concluded that, while the community isn’t opposed to Wegmans, they oppose the development.

“We are opposing the location of the facility in the midst of this community,” Hunter-Jordan said.