The Federal Highway Administration’s review of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle will be extended now that another agency is requiring study of the historical significance of a cemetery and house near the county’s school complex.
“The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation requests the FHWA obtain a formal determination of eligibility… for the Sammons-Ferguson Cemetery and J.S. Sammons House,” wrote Charlene Dwin Vaughn of the ACHP in a May 6 letter to Ed Sundra of the FHWA.
The ACHP was created in 1966 by the National Historic Preservation Act. Any project that is funded by a federal agency must go through a process known as “Section 106” to determine if historic properties will be affected.
Inclusion on the list, or even being deemed eligible, could trigger further review of any impacts the 6.2 mile highway could have on the properties.
The FHWA last issued an approval to build the road in 2003 and has required VDOT to perform an environmental assessment to see if any conditions have changed since then that would affect their original determination. That review has been under way since last August.
“This [new] evaluation must be completed and a decision rendered before the environmental assessment process can be concluded,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District.
Descendants of those buried in the cemetery as well as historians have argued that the sites deserve protection because they represent part of the community’s past that needs further study.
“The Route 29 Bypass corridor cuts a wide swath through an area of concentrated late 19th century and 20th century African-American settlement, land ownership and community formation,” wrote archaeologist Steve Thompson in an April 7 letter to a VDOT archaeologist.
Thompson said the sites are significant now because all traces of the Hydraulic Mills area were lost when the South Fork Rivanna River reservoir was created in 1966.
“Properties embodying these themes remain woefully under-recognized and under-memorialized in the Commonwealths’ rich inventory of historic resources,” Thompson continued.
One of the dead is Jessie Scott Sammons, who lived from 1853 to 1901. He was descended from a sister of Sally Hemings, a slave of Thomas Jefferson. Sammons was a school-teacher and active in a movement to educate African-Americans in the post-civil war era.
Another is George R. Ferguson, a physician who married one of Sammon’s daughters in 1929 before dying three years later.
In March 25, 2013, VDOT told the Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer they do not believe the cemetery is eligible. They based their work on a report created by their consultant, Cultural Resources Incorporated.
“The primary persons associated with the Sammons Cemetery are both recognized as having local significance to the Albemarle County area with respect to the fields of education and medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” wrote Sandra DeChard and Ellen Brady in their report.
The CRI report estimates there are as many 11 people buried there, citing a sketch that VDOT prepared in 1998 when it bought the property.
However, the report concludes that neither Ferguson nor Sammons were influential enough to have their resting place included on the list.
“While Sammons, in collaboration with other local educators and community leaders, was influential in African American education in post-Civil War Virginia, no single accomplishment has been identified elevating him to the level of outstanding as implied in the NRHP guidance,” DeChard and Brady wrote.
Erica James, an MIT anthropology and a descendant of Sammons, argued in an April 23, 2013 letter that the VDOT-commissioned analysis was faulty.
“[The report] is devoid of serious engagement or consultation with leading professional historians in the fields of 19th century African-American or Southern history,” James wrote.
Regardless of whether the cemetery is deemed eligible for federal recognition, VDOT says it does not plan to disturb the graves.
“VDOT has determined that the cemetery can be preserved in place without being disturbed during the construction of the project,” Hatter said. “There are no detailed plans at this time; the engineering will be done during the project design process.”
However, James has said she does not trust VDOT and wants to see a legally-binding agreement.
“That can only happen with a revision and updating of the 1992 memorandum of agreement governing the Route 29 Bypass Section 106 review process,” James added.
Vaughn wrote that she wants the FHWA to convene a meeting between stakeholders to better explain how the cemetery will be affected by the bypass.
“During this meeting, FHWA and VDOT can clarify the status of this project and discuss the details of the proposal to avoid effects to the Sammons-Ferguson Cemetery, regardless of its eligibility,” Vaughn wrote.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $136 million contract to the team of Skanska and Branch Highways in June 2012. However, they cannot begin work on a final design or purchasing right of way until the FHWA concludes its review process.