Grave matter: South Lawn remains to be seen
When Roanoke resident Jan Wilkins received a phone call from The University of Virginia in 1995, the last thing he expected to hear was that archaeologists had accidentally discovered 12 grave shafts containing the remains of his ancestors across the street from New Cabell Hall. Nothing could've surprised him more with the possible exception of his ancestors' race.
Until that phone call, Wilkins had no idea that his great-great grandmother, Catherine "Kitty" Foster, laundress and seamstress for UVA residents, was African-American.
"I was excited when I heard the news," says Wilkins. "But a little shocked. I'm sure my grandmother would've told me if she had known her grandmother was black, and she never said anything. So our whole family was surprised."
As were construction workers when they initially stumbled across the graves in 1993. The expansion of the B1 parking lot off JPA was temporarily brought to a halt so as not to disturb the gravesite of Wilkins' ancestors.
Twelve years later, UVA has bigger plans for construction near the gravesite. Specifically, they intend to lower and widen JPA as part of the South Lawn Project. This time, they want to make sure there won't be any surprises once they begin work, so they hired Rivanna Archaeological Services to search for more graves.
Smart move. Last week, RAS discovered two new graves near the original twelve. It's still uncertain if the newly unearthed grave shafts are related to those identified in 1993.
When The Hook telephoned Wilkins last week to tell him the news, he was particularly pleased to hear that UVA and RAS were taking measures to ensure the graves' safety.
"I'm very grateful for the precautions being taken with regard to the graves," says Wilkins. "My heritage means a lot to me."
It certainly does. When Wilkins initially heard the news about his ancestors in 1995, he visited the university to see the site and to attend a Black History festival.
"About half the people at the festival were black community members," he says. "I was proud to be a part of it."
RAS will continue into the summer in their search for more gravesites near Venable Lane. Once they've completed their work, UVA landscape architects will design an open park above the graves.
"We want to memorialize these graves and the remains, not destroy them," says Benjamin Ford of RAS.
For this reason, there are no future plans to open or move the grave shafts.
Note: This story, as originally printed, contained an error in the description of what was found. The discovery was of grave shafts and not of coffins. This online archived version has been corrected.–editor
Eric Schorling screens soil at the Venable Lane site near UVA's planned "South Lawn" project.
Stephen Thompson directs the operation for Rivanna Archaeological Services.
PHOTOS BY MARY COCKERILLE