The NAACP plans to appeal a massive construction project approved by Hanover County in an historic African-American community. With millions of dollars in state aid and tax breaks, the Wegman's grocery chain wants to build a regional distribution center.
The Brown Grove Baptist Church is at the heart of this small, rural neighborhood founded 150 years ago by freed slaves. Dozens of people live here or were raised in the area – among them 40-year-old Renada Harris. She remembers riding her bike on country roads to visit cousins.
“It was very peaceful. I’m not going to say it was like Mayberry, but everybody knows everybody. You didn’t have to worry about leaving your doors unlocked or anything like that,” she recalls.
But all that changed in the early 60’s when I-95 was built through the center of the community which is less than 20 miles north of Richmond and about five miles south of Ashland.
"After the Interstate came in, of course, came the truck stop," says 50-year-old Bonnica Cotman, a descendent of one of Brown Grove’s founders. “We have a landfill. We have two concrete plants, and then we also have Bass Pro Shops – the little strip area with the restaurants and nail shops and all those places.”
Then there’s the corporate air strip built next to the home Fawn Dendy – a six-and-a-half acre property inherited from her grandmother. She lives there now with her husband Alonzo and three kids.
“All we hear all night long is trucks," they say. "It shakes the house a little bit, and the planes coming in are getting bigger. They really rattle the house at night.”
And now the county has approved a 1.7 million square foot grocery distribution center that could add 31-hundred vehicle trips a day to local roads. Church Deacon Kenneth Spurlock feels bad for his in-laws. Much of their front yard has already been lost to the growing stream of traffic, and to try and improve safety local planners installed a median on their street.
"Now when they come home they have to go up the road, make a U-turn in traffic, come back, go through the light into the truck stop, make a U-turn, then they come back home," he explains. "When they asked the question, ‘Why was this median put in front of our home?’ they said, ‘Well thousands of cars come through here each week.’ Thousands of cars come through, but we live here!”
Wegman's did not respond to our request for an interview, but has promised to maintain a 75-foot wooded buffer between its site and the road, adding a bike and pedestrian path. The company promises 700 more jobs in the area, but great grandmother Diane Smith Drake is not convinced. She feels entitled to a clean, peaceful place to live and claims she owes it to her family to resist the proposed development.
“It’s almost like our ancestors are speaking to us: ‘We expect you to protect our land and our heritage, because we worked so hard for this, and we want to leave something to the next generation.’”
She and other residents fear more traffic and accidents and more flooding as the development wipes out 15 wooded acres of wetland. They worry about the need to relocate the graves of their ancestors, and Bonnica Cotman laments the loss of Brown Grove’s very identity.
"They can put up a shopping center that says The Shops of Brown Grove, but where is Brown Grove?" she asks. "Brown Grove is no more. It’s no longer a community of families, of generations and generations that persevered for 150 years in spite of all of the other encroachments that we’ve already had."
The community was dismayed when the state offered Hanover county $2.3 million to assist with the Wegman’s project and significant tax breaks to the company. They asked Ralph Northam to visit them after a meeting in Rochester with Wegman’s executives.
"He said they were nice people, they wanted to be good neighbors, and that it would be good for Virginia, good for Hanover County," Cotman remembers. "We’re like, 'You went all the way up to Rochester, New York to see what they were about. We’re just 15 minutes up the road!'"
They have support from the people of Union Hill in Buckingham County – a group that helped delay and ultimately end Dominion’s plan for a giant compressor plant in that African-American community, but they have little faith that public officials will change their minds and are now pinning their hopes on a lawsuit by the NAACP. That organization notes a pattern of disenfranchisement of Black communities like Brown Grove and Union Hill. In a press release, the association writes: “We can no longer sit idly by and watch the destruction of our people to appease corporate wealth.”