In Path of Pipeline, Descendants of Freedmen Fight to Preserve Historic Virginia
The textual sources about the founding of Union Hill, Virginia, are admittedly thin, thanks to a suspicious 1869 fire that burned down the county courthouse designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1822. But oral history passed down to African American families in Buckingham County, located about 30 miles south of Charlottesville, recount the establishment of Union Hill, nearby Union Grove, and a number of other settlements by emancipated black men and women following the end of the Civil War. They quickly founded churches and schools and began to farm the rocky soil of this large county in central Virginia, where the black pre-war population of roughly 9,000 (8,224 enslaved and 947 free) was half again as large than the white population of 6,041—a typical ratio in southern communities. Black citizens catapulted themselves into political office, building on the economic foundation established by land-owning free blacks before the war and a frenzied level of voter registration following emancipation: in 1867, freedmen accounted for 62 percent of the voters in an election that sent African American farmer Francis Moss, born free in 1825, to represent Buckingham at the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1868—the first to include black representatives.
The history of Buckingham County is little known outside its African American community, some of whom still live on land settled by their ancestors or worship in churches they founded. The one footnote is the birth, in 1875, of educator Carter G. Woodson to two formerly enslaved laborers residing in the county. But Buckingham County has made news recently due to protests against the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the county, along with a natural gas compressor station that will throb 24/7 and, opponents argue, could periodically spew toxins into the air. What started as small but fervent protests against the construction of the pipeline, a $7.5 billion hose that will carry fracked natural gas along a 600-mile route from West Virginia to North Carolina, have grown into large and fervent protests attracting a growing cast of regional and national leaders. Former Vice-President Al Gore made an appearance in late February 2019. As these leaders have all pointed out, the pipeline represents an investment in fossil fuel infrastructure that runs counter to the current recommendations of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and, many would argue, common sense. Why invest billions in transporting fracked natural gas across three states when scientists assert that the only way to avoid irreversible climate catastrophe is to halt our use of fossil fuels by 2050?
The potential environmental costs of the pipeline—which would be the second to bisect Buckingham County—are enormous, and in a fashion typical of such projects they fall disproportionately on the poor and black residents of the area. (Studies by the Southern Environmental Law Center have shown that Native American tribal lands in Virginia and North Carolina are also in the path of the pipeline.) Environmental injustice abounds, as does historical and cultural injustice. Aided and abetted, of course, by politics: Gov. Ralph Northam was recently brought low but somehow not removed from office after reports he had performed in blackface while in medical school. Last November he ousted two leaning-anti-pipeline members from a state air pollution control board on the eve of a vote for a permit that threatened to go against Dominion Energy, the company building the pipeline and a major contributor to Northam’s campaigns. Civil rights leaders have suggested that if Northam wants to “reconcile” (his word) with black Virginians, he could start by reversing his position on Dominion’s pipeline.
Environmental opponents of the pipeline were joined early on by community members well-versed in the African American history of the area. Just 1,500 feet from the proposed site for the compressor station lives Cora Perkins, a direct descendant of Caesar Perkins, born enslaved in 1839 and elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1869, where he voted to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution; he was re-elected in 1887. John W. Laury, a descendant of freedmen who settled in Buckingham County, lives less a mile from the compressor station, one of only three proposed for the pipeline (the others are at the start and end). Perhaps the most authoritative voice of all was Charles W. White, 88, the dean of local African American history. White self-published a comprehensive account of that history in 1987 called The Hidden and Forgotten, which he was inspired to write after a bicentennial committee comprised of white members told him in 1976 that there would be no bicentennial events featuring African Americans: the committee had looked for black history in the public records, they said, but they didn’t find anything. That the county courthouse containing many of those records burned down, of suspected arson, on the same day in 1868 that the 15th Amendment was signed—thereby destroying records of free black land ownership along with records of previous enslavement, which might have allowed former slaves to sue their masters for restitution—is just one of the several ironies of this story. Another is that Dominion bought the 68 acres for its compressor station from the descendants of the slave-owning family who operated the largest tobacco plantation in the county, called Variety Shade, for $2.5 million.
In May 2016, Preservation Virginia, the leading state preservation organization, listed the historic African American settlements in Buckingham County on its “Most Endangered Historic Places” list. There are two African American sites among the twelve on the National Register of Historic Places (although the six plantation houses are, of course, also sites of African American history). One is a family cemetery founded by the free black Stanton family before the Civil War (figure 1). The other is the Alexander Hill Baptist Church, added in 2017 as anti-pipeline sentiment was mounting (figure 2). Erected in 1867, two years after the church’s founding, the building served some five hundred black congregants who had left the white church, Mulberry Grove, after emancipation. The original log structure is intact under white clapboard siding, and it still sports its original bell. It is disintegrating rapidly. Some in the community hope that some of the $5.1 million Dominion has pledged to contribute toward community improvements will find its way to Alexander Hill.
Union Hill and the surrounding area is home to numerous other African American church congregations founded during Reconstruction—six of them are located a stone’s throw from the pipeline route—as well as dozens of mostly unmarked and undocumented African American cemeteries. Yet the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), in its legally required assessment of the planned route of the pipeline, made only one mention of the African American settlement on Union Hill by emancipated slaves, and concluded that the area “does not exhibit a cohesive cultural landscape” that would require accommodation by the pipeline. Deep sigh: how could that be? The answer will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked for or written about historic preservation. Pretty much all that is required of the applicant, in this case Dominion, was 1) a windshield survey, which is exactly what it sounds like, conducted from a car with no requirement for surveyors to get out of the car and expressly prohibiting them from straying off public roads; and 2) a search of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources database of sites of architectural and archaeological importance. FERC ruled that there was no evidence of a cultural landscape in Buckingham County. We looked, they said, but we didn’t find anything.
Mr. White, who has published his own local newspaper, The Informant, for more than thirty years, has made a special practice of recording the sites of undocumented African American cemeteries. He has lately been joined in his efforts by a new, local non-profit called One Shared Story, which is using digital mapping technologies to record undocumented gravesites—and teaching local residents how to do the same. On a windy day last October, Mr. White led my class of fifteen University of Virginia students and three members of One Shared Story on a tour of several cemeteries in Buckingham County, all on private land. My students had read about how to recognize an unmarked Reconstruction-era cemetery—the dark patches of green periwinkle, the rows of coffin-shaped depressions, the broken fieldstones marking heads and feet. The students wandered around for several minutes before one of them, glancing down a slight rise, said, “whoa, I see it.” He directed his classmates’ gaze to the sunken evergreen mounds and the pairs of jagged stones emerging two by two from the fog of the red clay. No-one would have looked through a windshield at this plot of ground and thought, “historic cemetery.” My students got to experience a cultural landscape that afternoon, and I don’t think any of them will ever forget it.
At exactly the same time the Buckingham County protestors were mounting their final battles over the pipeline’s path last October, a story with very similar contours was unfolding at Mt. Vernon. Dominion had applied for a permit to build a compressor station across the river from Mt. Vernon, in Charles County, Maryland. Because Mt. Vernon’s viewshed is protected by conservation easements drafted in the 1950s and 1960s, Dominion did not propose to build the station within view of the presidential home. But, it was discovered, when the compressor let off steam, puffs of it would waft into the viewshed. There were other environmental concerns as well. But the thought of puffs of steam wafting across George Washington’s view of the Potomac tipped the balance: Dominion’s permit was denied. There will be no compressor station built across the river from Mt. Vernon. I’m happy for Mt. Vernon. But outraged on Buckingham County’s behalf.
One Shared Story, the new grassroots group working to preserve African American history in central Virginia, isn’t wasting any time bemoaning the vagaries of historic preservation. They sought and were recently granted permission to upload the locations of undocumented African American cemeteries directly to the database maintained by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources—a huge deal requiring much vetting on the state’s part. That means that the next time a utility, or prison, or landfill, or other corporate heavyweight with political donations falling out of its pockets wants to tear up the landscape, dozens if not hundreds (gauging by the group’s determination) of African American gravesites and cemeteries and, ultimately, other historic sites will ping when the state database is searched. The ability to look and claim you didn’t find anything will get much harder. Will that guarantee the safety of these endangered sites? Of course not. But it will put them on the table at the beginning of the discussion about land use, not at the end. And that may go at least a small distance in combatting the kind of environmental racism currently on display in Buckingham County.