By Sean Yoes
On a frigid Saturday night in Ashland, Virginia, several members of the Brown Grove Preservation Group gathered at Around the Table, a Black-owned soul food restaurant in the area. As they dined on fried catfish, pork chops, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and other southern delicacies, several members of the group, who are all related by blood, marriage, or lineage, were already discussing what they were going to eat after church tomorrow.
The consensus was that the Sunday menu would consist of baked chicken, salmon, candied yams, potato salad, and collard greens. It was decided that the feast should be prepared by Elizabeth Harris, the mother of Brown Grove Preservation Group leader Renada Harris, though Elizabeth was not at Around the Table that night. Renada made a call to her mother and announced to the group, “She’ll do it.”
For most of the night, roars of laughter emanated from the large table at the soul food restaurant, as did a constant barrage of good-natured digs between family members. But the jubilant mood quickly shifted to melancholy when the subject of the planned 1.1 million square foot Wegmans distribution center came up.
Families fear that construction of the mammoth facility, which is to be sprawled across approximately 220 acres in the middle of Brown Grove, would be cataclysmic for the historic Black enclave that has endured similar industrial incursions for decades. “The county doesn’t want to acknowledge Brown Grove,” said Diane Smith Drake, the group’s unofficial historian, referring to Hanover County.
“Never has,” Harris added.
“If They Build That Monstrosity”
On December 11, 2019, former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced via an official statement released by the county that Wegmans Food Market, Inc. intended to invest $175 million over three years to establish a full-service, regional distribution operation at the Air Park Associates site. Less than three years later, Wegmans’ arrival to Brown Grove, a tight-knit community of about 200 homes, seems imminent.
The Air Park Associates site, as the large parcel of undeveloped land is known, is located directly across the street from the venerable Brown Grove Baptist Church on Ashcake Road. The future employee entrance would accommodate approximately 700 Wegmans workers and would be located just a few yards from the entrance of the church. The facility would encroach directly on several properties owned by Brown Grove residents, and there is great concern over the potential for drastically increased traffic and noise, as well as decreased air and water quality. All of this would have catastrophic effects on this historic community founded by formerly enslaved Americans in 1870.
Despite controversies over crucial permit acquisitions, the possible desecration of sacred burial sites, and numerous environmental concerns (the future facility would endanger several acres of federally-protected wetlands), Wegmans is forging ahead and plans to be open and operating sometime in 2023. All of this comes with the apparent blessing of Hanover County and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“Unfortunately, we always see a disconnect between what local elected officials want compared to what their communities want,” said Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, who represents the 31st House of Delegates district, which includes Brown Grove. “I think that our commonwealth needs to start supporting our historically Black communities, and we must prioritize their inclusion…we need more people to share their stories like the Brown Grove community has,” she added. “The Brown Grove community has time and again been subjected to environmental racism and encroachment. Being inclusive means respecting both sides, and what does that mean for the Black community in Brown Grove? Why do we want to change years of tradition in that community? It’s not right.”
Renada Harris, a hairdresser who owns a salon with her sister Kimberlyn Washington, has emerged as an activist fighting for environmental justice, racial justice, and the right to self-determination for her community. According to her, there was a meeting in December 2021 between attorneys representing Brown Grove and those representing Wegmans in an effort to reach a settlement between the community and the supermarket chain. Unfortunately, Harris reports that Wegmans abruptly broke off negotiations and never returned to the table. Requests for a response from Wegmans regarding these allegations went unanswered.
“They opened up with, they want to be good neighbors. And so, in 2020, they had a revenue of $10 billion and…they are number four on the Fortune 100.1 So, when you have a company of that magnitude coming into a historically Black community, we ask, ‘How are you going to be good neighbors to us?’” Harris said.
“Our ecosystem is where we live, and their actions have tangible consequences that are not going to be evenly distributed across Hanover County…We’re getting the brunt of that,” Harris added. “Hanover County may benefit, and Richmond and everyone else who may come here may benefit, but we are being directly impacted but we are not reaping the benefits from it.”
The pattern of disrupting Black communities via federal, state, or locally mandated projects has been repeated for decades around Virginia and the nation.
For example, Union Hill, Virginia, was also founded by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War and remains a majority Black community. Last year, Union Hill, which is approximately 67 miles west of Brown Grove, was able to galvanize various factions and block the construction of a 600-mile Atlantic Coast pipeline. Like Brown Grove, residents of Union Hill feared the uprooting of historic gravesites, as well as increased air and water pollution connected to the construction of a compressor station necessary for the completion of the pipeline.
Across the United States, federally funded interstate projects have disrupted several Black and other disenfranchised communities. After President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, Brown Grove was one of the first Black communities disrupted by the construction of Interstate 95 (I-95), which began in the 1950s. The proximity to I-95 is one of the main reasons cited by Wegmans for choosing Brown Grove as the location for its distribution facility. Other, similar projects have disrupted Black communities in Charlotte, North Carolina; Charlottesville, Virginia; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; Los Angeles; Miami; Montgomery, Alabama; Nashville; New Orleans; and Syracuse, NY, among many others.
“We moved here for the peace of a rural community experience, and if they build this monstrosity, that will be six stories tall, operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, we will lose that peace and tranquility we came here for,” said Kathy Woodcock, who, along with her husband Tim Miller, purchased their property on Ashcake Road next to Brown Grove Baptist Church seven years ago.
“The noise, the idling trucks, the beeping of the trucks, the increased traffic on the road, their HVAC systems, their generators. It’s like a massive factory,” Woodcock added. “It will change the environment of this community altogether. And the county has not just approved it, but they welcomed them in, and they have more or less condemned this community.”
“The Church Is the Center of the Community”
“It’s a great community. We say it’s more like one or two families, because everybody in some form or fashion has some kind of connection with one another,” said Kenneth Spurlock, chairman of the deacon board at Brown Grove Baptist Church. About an hour prior to the 10 a.m. service the morning after the group dinner at Around the Table, Spurlock maneuvered through the historic church’s sanctuary to make sure everything was ready for worship on what was a “Communion Sunday,” the first in-person Communion Sunday in many months because of COVID-19.
Deacon Spurlock is also a church trustee, teaches Sunday School and does, in his words, “whatever needs to be done.” Born and raised in King William County, Virginia, he moved to Brown Grove in 1988, when he married his wife Melinda. Melinda’s family has been in the historic Black community for several generations, and Spurlock’s heart has been in Brown Grove since they wed. “The church is the heart of the community. Everybody pretty much came up together…a great bond there,” Spurlock said. Yet, he and the rest of Brown Grove have lamented the steady, unwelcome industrialization of their home. Wegmans is only the latest chapter in this tragic, decades-long narrative.
“Over the years, we have seen things slowly…fall off and decline, the community getting smaller and smaller, mainly because of industry and the things that have been going on and the potential things coming up,” Spurlock said. “It’s hard in today’s world…for children who grew up here to come back here when you have so much industry building up. It’s hard to say ‘Well, I’m going to build a home in Brown Grove right beside a concrete plant.’ Or `I’m gonna buy my momma’s home place and live up here by the stump dump.’…And now you got Wegmans coming across the street.”
For nearly 70 years, Brown Grove, acknowledged by few outside its borders, seems to always be an option on the table when Virginia and Hanover County look to expand industry. In the late 1950s, construction of I-95 began and ultimately cut Brown Grove in half (the highway was expanded in Brown Grove from 2015-2017). In 1969, construction of the Hanover County Municipal Airport began in the town. Years later, a proposed expansion of the airport forced some residents to relocate even though, according to community leaders, that expansion never actually took place. There are two concrete plants in or directly adjacent to Brown Grove. And in 1987, work began on a commercial landfill—or “stump dump” as it is often called—and recycling center in the historic community.
“We’re always dumped on. We have loving people, caring people, taxpaying people, and we’re involved in the communities. The church does tons of outreach,” Spurlock said. “But when it comes to this community, I guess they consider it more of a valuable piece of real estate for industry.”
The Mother of Brown Grove
After the 10 a.m. service, Drake, the unofficial historian, headed to a small, nondescript graveyard tucked away near a wooded area on the church’s property. Several of Drake’s ancestors are buried there, and they all helped build the church. “Six people started a ‘brush harbor’ in 1870, which was directly after the Reconstruction era…They wanted a place to worship,” explained Smith. “A brush harbor is nothing but branches put together as a shelter, and they worship in this shelter. That’s all it was. They still couldn’t worship…out in the open. Some people call it a ‘hush harbor,’” she added.
That same year, in 1870, Caroline Morris, a freed Black woman who was born enslaved in Hanover County in 1846, is credited with founding the community. Morris is now referred to with deference as “the mother of Brown Grove,” and many of today’s residents claim direct lineage to her.
According to Drake, several early wooden church structures were destroyed in fires throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Many said, back in that day, they couldn’t prove that it was the KKK, but that was the normal thing for those churches back in that era,” she explained. “Our modern-day church was built in 1945, and the community, the men would take part and come after they worked all week, would come and help build this church,” Drake added.
One-hundred and fifty years later, the church remains the foundation of this historic community, imperiled by what many argue is irresponsible industrialization on the part of the county and the commonwealth.
“We’re Going to Push Back”
“Sometimes, business and manufacturing are ways to protect the integrity of a community. But the key thing here…is self-determination,” said Faye Prichard, a member of Hanover County’s Board of Supervisors. Prichard represents the Ashland district, which includes parts of Brown Grove. “And I think that the mistake that localities often make is trying to decide what’s better for a community in order for them to survive without involving the community directly in those decisions,” she continued.
“One of the things that has always impressed me about Brown Grove…is that the people who live there take pride in where they live, and they go back for generations. And they care about being able to pass this sense of community and love and community support onto their children and their grandchildren,” she explained. “I don’t really know how to say it any better than that. These are folks who have a long history of being a significant part of Hanover County, and I want to make sure that gets respected.”
Later, after the much-anticipated Sunday meal at her mother and father’s house, Harris walked through the family burial site behind their home. Known as the Lewis and Morris family graveyard, some of the graves are mere feet from the property line of the planned Wegmans distribution facility. It is widely believed that Caroline Morris is buried there in an unmarked grave.
“ is going to diminish the aesthetic that makes us an historically Black community. It’s a community where the descendants still live there, and you don’t find too many communities like that,” said Harris. “You’re going to disturb the very essence of what makes us historic,” she continued. “I would like to see Hanover County recognize Brown Grove publicly as a rural, historic residential district.”
“We were never against Wegmans as a company…but we just don’t agree with the location for this particular area, when there were other sites we thought were viable options,” said Spurlock.
In fact, Wegmans considered several sites, including multiple locations in North Carolina and as many as four other places in Virginia, before choosing historic Brown Grove. It chose Brown Grove despite allegedly having the option of moving to an identically sized site in northern Hanover County. That location, formerly home to the Camptown Races, was later purchased by Becknell Industrial, an Indianapolis-based developer that planned to build a 1.2 million-square-foot distribution center for the home improvement retailer Lowe’s. At the end of 2021, Lowe’s apparently pulled out of the deal because they decided to locate the facility in South Richmond. The site in northern Hanover County is currently unoccupied.
Virginia gave Wegmans at least $4 million to encourage the company to come to the commonwealth, along with other incentives. Hanover County’s official release about the deal read: “The Virginia Economic Development Partnership worked with Hanover County and the Greater Richmond Partnership to help Wegmans find a property that could meet its needs in Virginia.” Yet, it seems clear that the Commonwealth of Virginia and Hanover County gave little or no consideration to the needs of Brown Grove. As Harris put it, “Wegmans will benefit from generational wealth on behalf of the industrial injustice that Hanover has put on Brown Grove.”
For decades, industrial encroachment has adversely affected the small Black enclave and the fear is that the addition of Wegmans will make life in this once idyllic community intolerable. “When you live in a community where you are near 95, you have the fumes; and, more importantly, we are by a truck stop, so you have all the emissions from the tractor trailers, and you have the fumes from the airplanes flying overhead every day,” added Harris. “The pollution is absorbed in those trees…when you don’t have those trees to absorb the pollution then that affects our air quality, and the roots from those trees protect the well water that some of the community has.”
The massive distribution facility would also literally cast a shadow upon the hub of the community, Brown Grove Baptist Church. Residents are adamant that the facility’s presence will require that they build another centrally located hub for various activities serving Brown Grove, as well as nearby communities. “We would like a community center. When you take away the ability of our kids to freely play…because of the accidents the increased traffic will cause, we want a place where they can come and be safe, off the road where they can exercise without them having to breathe in any pollution,” said Harris. “All of our activities are right on the road…and we don’t have to have activities at the church; we could have them at a community center. Not only for the church but all of Ashland and Hanover as well.”
Beyond the community center, the Brown Grove Preservation Group is demanding other specific remedies for what they believe is a historic pattern of environmental injustice. They want swift, concrete action to mitigate the potential ramifications of the distribution center.
First and foremost, the group wants Wegmans to relocate the site elsewhere, possibly to the vacant lot once intended for Lowe’s. “We want our community to be recognized and for Hanover County to treat it with the respect that an historic preservation site deserves. We want Hanover County to invest in our community with parks, walkways, and the community center. This isn’t unreasonable, since it is reflective of the other side of town that is predominantly white,” Harris explained.
“We want clean air and clean water to mitigate the amount of toxins flowing into our community as a result of all the industry. These are reasonable asks from the county, from the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality), and from the Army Corps of Engineers,” she continued. “We want a moratorium on further encroachment to be implemented for Hanover Country.”
Ultimately, the people of Brown Grove are determined to remain resilient despite the egregiously unfair challenges to their way of life. “Historically they just ran over top of us. But now, they see that we’re going to push back,” said Harris. “So, I’m hopeful that they will start to listen and know that we’re not going to just roll over.”
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