Graves of Mary Hemings' descendants found in bypass right-of-way - The Daily Progress: News

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Graves of Mary Hemings' descendants found in bypass right-of-way

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Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 10:57 pm | Updated: 10:57 pm, Wed Jan 30, 2013.

A cemetery containing the remains of two descendants of Mary Hemings, Sally Hemings' sister, lies in the right-of-way of the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29, just west of Albemarle High School, officials said Wednesday.

The location of the recently discovered graves could mean they will be exhumed and moved to make way for the road, said City Councilor Dede Smith.

The plot contains Jesse Scott Sammons, his wife, Lula, and their son Robert Sammons and son-in-law George Ferguson. Jesse Scott Sammons' mother, Sarah Scott, was a direct descendant of Mary Hemings, said former Monticello historian Cinder Stanton.

Sally and Mary Hemings were slaves at Monticello. Historians think Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson had as many as six children together, according to Monticello's website.

The exact familial relationship between Mary Hemings and the Sammons family was unclear Wednesday.

There are likely more undiscovered graves, said Smith, who has tracked African-American family histories in Albemarle County since the early 1990s.

"I do not know what's going to happen with [the department of transportation], [and] I do not know what's going to happen with the Western Bypass, but I think this is a story that needs to be told," Smith said. "There are too few opportunities to educate the general population about our extensive African-American history, and this is a great opportunity to do that."

Smith did not mention any specific plan to teach county and city residents about the Sammons family.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is in negotiations with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to decide what to do with the remains, said VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter.

"It is not uncommon for cemeteries, particularly small family burial plots, to be identified during the design and construction of highway projects," Hatter said in an email. " VDOT is sensitive to the needs and concerns of the family members involved and we have procedures in place and environmental and right-of-way specialists to research and evaluate the significance of such cemeteries ."

To move the graves, VDOT would need a burial permit from the state Department of Historic Resources.

"This is not at all uncommon, especially when you are dealing with Virginia from the Piedmont east," said Randy Jones, Department of Historic Resources spokesman. "It is especially common in the Tidewater ... there is a lot of outreach on the part of our department to make people aware of the need to record historic cemeteries, especially those that have been abandoned."

Jones said he was not sure how long the permitting process would take or what steps, if any, VDOT had taken to begin the process.

It was unclear Wednesday exactly when or how the graves, which lie on a property off Lambs Road, about 10 minutes west of downtown Charlottesville, were discovered.

Jesse Sammons was a prominent African-American teacher in turn-of-the-century Albemarle County, Stanton said. Sammons taught in two schools in the county and was a prominent member of Union Ridge Baptist Church, Stanton said.

Sammons grew up in an area then known as Hydraulic Mills, part of which lies in what is now the Ivy Creek Natural Area, and part of which lies in the path of the bypass.

Rollins Sammons, Jesse's father, was a free man before the Civil War and eventually went on to own the mill that gave the area its name, Stanton said.

Living relatives of the Sammons family could not be reached by press time.

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