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Hanover church anchors historic Black community of Brown Grove

People seated in pews
Brown Grove residents attend a service at Brown Grove Baptist Church. (Photo courtesy of Martin Montgomery)

For a deeper look at this report, watch a television feature on Brown Grove tonight, Feb. 24 at 8:00 p.m., on VPM News Focal Point.

In December 2019, then-Gov. Ralph Northam and Wegmans Food Market, Inc. announced plans to construct a 1.1 million-square-foot regional distribution facility in Hanover County. The facility's 219-acre site is situated in the small, rural, Black community of Brown Grove, founded in the Reconstruction era by formerly enslaved men and women on land owned by its 19th century community matriarch Caroline Morris. 

“Brown Grove is a community where everybody knows everybody,” says Renada Harris, a neighborhood native. “It's a descendent community where everyone still lives here, everyone owns their own home, their own property and the land is passed on from generation to generation.”

Several of Morris' direct descendants, still living in the community and active members of 152-year-old  Brown Grove Baptist Church, say that Brown Grove has suffered decades of industrial and economic development encroachment, including the bisection of the community by the construction of Interstate 95 in the late 1950s.

“I knew that things were in my community that were not supposed to be here,” Harris says. “I always knew the story of Brown Grove, and such and such family lives on the other side of the bridge. But I'm like, okay, well, back in the day, how did you all walk to people's houses? Did you all walk across 95? But now I know, 95 was not there.”

The Wegmans project cost is estimated at $175 million, including a $2.5 million state-funded grant. Wegmans refused multiple interview requests for this report. The company says the project will create 700 new jobs, and Hanover officials say once built, the distribution facility will generate millions in tax revenue for the county. 

“Wegmans will create hundreds of good-paying jobs well above our average prevailing wage, and at full buildout, will be one of our largest taxpayers,” Hanover County Director of Economic Development Linwood Thomas stated in a 2019 press release announcing the project, issued by Northam’s office. 

The Wegmans project’s site spans 219 acres, bordered by Ashcake and Sliding Hill Roads in Ashland, 14 acres of which are wetlands. The entire site is also designated as a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area, spaces which are, by law, regulated by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The project was granted permits by DEQ and the Army Corps of Engineers, but community members say their concern about the project’s environmental and quality-of-life impact exceed potential wetlands disturbance. They cite noise pollution, emissions from the generators that will power the facility’s construction and increased traffic among their major concerns. 

“As far as the Wegmans proposed project, it is just across the road [from the church], busy road that cars are constantly coming through,” says Kenneth Spurlock, chairman of deacons at Brown Grove Baptist Church. “You’re going to have a driveway where 700-plus [Wegmans] employees, 24 hours a day, are coming in and out.” He adds that the church sits in the pocket of a steep curve of the roadway. “[Wegmans employees are] going to be making turns right there where we have a lot of traffic, and frequent accidents happen here, I can almost say, on a monthly basis.”

Wegmans project leaders submitted plans to address the community members’ concerns, all of which were accepted and made publicly available by the Hanover County Board of Supervisors as the project unfolded. In a statement to VPM, chairman Sean Davis says the board “values all of our citizens and communities, including the residents of the Brown Grove community.”

Additionally, the Virginia Department of Transportation recommended restricting trucks from some of the roads that stand to be most heavily impacted by the project, including Ashcake Road. 

Still, even with these mitigations, Brown Grove residents and their advocates – including the Hanover NAACP and Protect Hanover – say the project continues a history of industrial development in the community that has encroached on residents’ homes and lives for decades. 

“…We have a construction debris facility that is 50 feet away from people's homes. We have a landfill that's in the community that's across the street from people's homes. We have the airport that you'll hear a plane flying over us. Then we have a truck stop right across the street from people's homes. Those are the things that are not supposed to be in a historic community,” Harris says.

Residents say it’s not only Brown Grove struggling with past and potential future encroachment. Historic communities of color across the state – and nation — are subjected to environmental injustice.

“When you think about environmental justice, I'm learning that there are so many communities around the United States – like Union Hill and C5, which is Charles City [County] – and they have the same exact issue that we have,” Harris continues. “They target communities like ours, because for so many years, people have said we don't have a say in anything because they've tried for many years to stop these projects and they're tired of losing.”

 Learn about sites of environmental justice campaigns around Virginia with this interactive map, created by the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and Adam Buchholz, director of Mapping for Environmental Justice.

An injunction submitted by Brown Grove community members and the Hanover NAACP challenging a key permit issued to Wegmans by the State Water Control Board was denied by a Richmond Circuit Court judge Jan. 10, 2022. The agency's permit stands, allowing the project to move forward.

A separate lawsuit, filed in 2020 by some Brown Grove residents and the Hanover NAACP challenging the Hanover Board of Supervisor's decision to permit the project, was dismissed but has since been appealed. 

A measure to strip the state Water Control and Air Pollution Control boards of the power to grant permits to projects with environmental implications – like the Wegmans facility – advanced in the House of Delegates in mid-February. 

“It's always just encroachment and more and more, so the people are steadily moving out or being pushed out, and my fear is that the community, how long would it last?” asks Spurlock. “Who would want to build in a community that's right beside an industrial park or have a warehouse right in front their home? And that means that over time, the community slowly dies out.”

Harris and other members of the community founded the Brown Grove Preservation Group to elevate the area’s rich Black history and call attention to what they perceive as the industrial encroachment that threatens it. The group’s “Save Brown Grove” petition has received more than 6,000 signatures from the public. The group’s efforts also netted the Brown Grove Residential Rural Historic District designation from the state Department of Historic Resources.

Brown Grove Preservation Group members also insist that their ancestors’ graves are within the Wegmans project site. They requested further archeological study of the area using Ground Penetrating Radar technology, a process in which Wegmans has agreed to participate. The group also asked that Michael Blakey – a physical anthropologist, College of William & Mary professor and expert in bio-archaeology of the African diaspora known for his work on the 17th and 18th century African Burial Ground in New York City – lead this process. Wegmans denied this request. 

Samantha Willis is an editorial producer at VPM, Virginia's Home for Public Media, and a journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans a decade.