A federal official is scheduled to visit an Albemarle County cemetery today to determine whether it is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
If the Sammons Cemetery and the adjacent Sammons House are included on the list, it could mean a longer wait for the Virginia Department of Transportation to get environmental approval to construct the 6.2-mile U.S. 29 Western Bypass.
“National Register listing or eligibility imposes no legal restrictions on private property owners, but it does trigger legal requirements that apply to projects involving federal funds, and to projects that require federal permits,” said Betsy Merritt, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Earlier this year, VDOT officials argued that the final burial ground of Jesse Scott Sammons off Lambs Road was not eligible for inclusion.
However, a group of Sammons’ descendants have claimed his graveyard and former estate is significant because it represents a lost chapter in Albemarle history when freed slaves settled in the long-gone communities of Hydraulic and Union Ridge in the late 19th century.
VDOT has agreed to preserve the cemetery, but the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation still requested that the site be considered for eligibility.
Relatives and other stakeholders met with federal and state officials on July 1 to discuss how the bypass could be designed to minimize impact on the cemetery.
The Keeper of the National Register, Carol D. Shull, requested the visit after concluding she did not have enough information to make a determination based solely upon historical records.
Jesse Scott Sammons, who died in 1901, was a leading educator of African-Americans in Albemarle County in the years following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. George Rutherford Ferguson, who married Sammons’ daughter, was the first African-American physician to operate a regular practice in Albemarle and Charlottesville.
“The National Register is the official list of places that are significant in American history or culture, either because of their architecture, or their connection to a significant person, or their connection to historical events, or in the case of archaeological sites, their potential to teach us more about history through research and excavation,” Merritt said.
Inclusion of the Sammons Cemetery on the list would trigger two legal requirements, Merritt said. VDOT would have to demonstrate that there is “no feasible and prudent alternative” to disturbing the site and that any harm to the cemetery would be minimized. Second, a formal agreement would be developed between VDOT and preservation officials that would lay out steps to “avoid, minimize and mitigate harm” to the property.
VDOT is revising an environmental assessment first released in draft form a year ago. The release of that document has been delayed pending resolution of the cemetery issue. The public would get 30 days to comment on the assessment after its release.
Some historians have claimed there are more burial grounds along the right-of-way that have yet to be identified. Historians convinced a federal official to ask VDOT to be prepared for such a discovery.
“We urge VDOT and FHWA to be mindful of the possibility of previously unidentified properties being discovered during construction,” wrote Charlene Dwin Vaughn, an assistant director at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, in a July 22 letter to the Federal Highway Administration.
“A plan for such discoveries should be developed that is precise about required steps,” Vaughn added.