ONARCHITECTURE- Sacred ground? Ridge Street sale raises the dead
The debate about whether an old family graveyard exists on near-Downtown land that Southern Development wants to develop has been going on for years. But one would have thought the issue had never been raised before City Council's October 6 meeting.
That's when Councilors approved the $253,000 sale of two City-owned lots on the corner of Ridge and Cherry to Southern Development, which is seeking to rezone the property as a Planned Unit Development (PUD) and build 40 residential units plus 40,000 square feet of commercial office space, a project many Ridge Street area residents oppose. The opposition was enough to sway councilor Holly Edwards, who was the lone nay vote on the one third-acre sale.
Not surprisingly, it was Edwards who responded to comments by local artist and Ridge Street area resident Edward Thomas, who raised the issue about the cemetery on an adjacent lot that's part of the development, citing notations in old deed books and eyewitness accounts of grave stone on the site. Edwards asked the City's assistant economic development director, Chris Engel, if Southern Development was a aware of this.
"The developers have done a fair amount of research into that already," said Engel, "and it has been determined by several archaeologists that there's no evidence of graveyards by looking at the site now."
Furthermore, Mayor Dave Norris assured everyone that Southern Development had agreed to go back for an archaeological assessment of the site before any construction begins.
"Southern Development has done extensive research on this subject," Norris later told the Hook, "and while it does not seem likely that there is a cemetery in the particular area in question, they're going to take steps to verify that either way."
However, according to Ridge Street area resident Antoinette Roades, who says she's been telling City and Southern Development officials since 2004 that a cemetery exists, there's little doubt. In fact, she says, the revised nomination form the City officially submitted to designate a Fifeville Historic District with the Virginia Division of Historic Resources affirmed the establishment of a cemetery on Parcel 157 and included that parcel within the boundaries of the proposed district.
"It's a matter of fact that all evidence– documentary, circumstantial, and anecdotal," writes Roades in an email, "points to Parcel 157 on tax map 29 as the site of the Hawkins 'family graveyard' reserved by that family by a deed of 1883."
In a letter to Roades, Ridge Street area resident Kenneth Martin recalled encountering an old tombstone on the property when he was a boy in the late 1950s, a letter that amounts to an interesting chapter of oral history.
"As we were headed home up Cherry Avenue, we decided we wanted to see where the 'Mule Man' lived," writes Martin. "He was the man who lived somewhere on the vacant lot and rode about town in a mule-drawn buggy. The trees and underbrush obscured most of the property, so we could not see where he lived exactly.
"In those days," Martin continues, "black children knew not to trespass on white-owned property, so we had to make sure that the people living along Ridge Street could not see us. We decided to sneak onto the property and stealthily find his house. We were traveling on a grassy patch when my right foot slipped and sank down into what I had thought was ground. Instead, my foot was in a shallow creek, up to my socks, and getting soggy wet. As I was pulling myself out on all fours, I looked up and saw an old tombstone, leaning towards me as though it was loose in the ground."
Indeed, in a letter to Council before the meeting, local anthropologist Lynn Rainville pleaded with Councilors to require a subsurface grave search of parcel 157 as a precondition of the sale of the lots, citing Roades' "copious research" as evidence that grave sites exist on the property.
According to Southern Development's Charlie Armstrong, however, the evidence is scant.
"Ms. Roades is relying mostly on the 50-plus year-old recollections of people who were children at the time they saw a tombstone near a creek," writes Armstrong. "We have made every possible effort to engage every expert we could find.
"None of the legal research, two physical surveys, visits by two archaeological experts of the investigation by the Department of Historic Resources," he continues, "have found any indication of anything resembling a grave or a cemetery. Even Ms. Roades has trespassed all over the property with her own 'experts,' and none of them have found anything either."
However, archaeologist Ben Ford, whose company, Rivanna Archaeological Services, performed a preliminary site investigation for Southern, believes there's enough evidence to warrant further study.
"Although there were no maps, plats, or documents specifically pointing to a cemetery within present day Parcel 157," he says, "our research indicated that because of the overlap [of older official parcels] there was still a possibility that the cemetery in question might be located within it."
Despite his skepticism, Armstrong says the company will conduct another, more thorough, archaeological assessment before construction begins.
"We will continue to use every bit of diligence and care at our disposal, and will continue to look into any new information that may come to our attention, even chasing down information that clearly looks like a 'wild goose,'" says Armstrong. "The bottom line is that state law requires that graves not be disturbed without special supervision and permission from the Department of Historic Resources, which would mean a work stoppage."
Of course, as Armstrong acknowledges, construction on the development probably won't begin for at least two years, a long time to wait for the cemetery debate to be laid to rest.