Residents are fighting against a proposed Wegmans distribution center. (Photo courtesy Virginia League of Conservative Voters)
Residents are fighting against a proposed Wegmans distribution center. (Photo courtesy Virginia League of Conservative Voters)

Brown Grove, a small African-American enclave in Hanover County built on the backs of slaves, sits about 17 miles north of Richmond.

Its rich, 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 abolition of slavery in America, Virginia officials have neglected Brown Grove, splitting the community about 70 years ago with the construction of Interstate-95. Nearly 40 years ago, a landfill and recycling center for construction materials arrived.

Today, the few hundred remaining residents and Morris descendants find themselves in yet 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 say it’s an environmental hazard that would increase truck traffic and disturb the ecosystem. So far, officials have ignored their complaints.

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 the massive distribution center on a 220-acres site, placing the cost at $175 million while claiming it would create 700 full-time jobs.

However, upon revealing the development would be located at Ashcake Road and Sliding Hill Road, residents in Brown Grove immediately reacted. The NAACP and others filed suits to stop the project. But 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 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 also objected because they have ancestors buried where Wegmans will build.

While Wegmans said it had conducted archaeological studies which did not result in locating any graves.

Residents questioned the study, many noting that surveyors walked through the area without using the tools and equipment necessary to accurately identify graves.

“Part of the property that it’s being built on was considered an historic area,” said Willnette Jackson, a member of the Brown Grove Baptist Church whose congregants count among those fighting the development.

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

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, the marked cemeteries typically 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.

Over the years, the development has impacted family burial sites. In one case, in the Lewistown Road section of the district, the construction of the North Lake business park required the removal 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,” said Brown Grove Baptist Church Deacon Kenny Spurlock. “Historically, it has been abused, misused and [overlooked] time and time and time again.”

Hunter-Jordan concluded that while the community does not oppose Wegmans, they do oppose the development.

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

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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