The Invisible Neighborhood

By Hannah Wilson-Black

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How the Black freedman communities of central and southern Virginia are unjustly zoned for industrial land uses.

In the community of Brown Grove, 20 minutes by car from Richmond, Virginia, you can’t go far without running into someone bearing the Morris name. Brown Grove was established in 1870 by a Black freedwoman, Caroline Dobson Morris, and, as a result, many people living in the community today still carry her last name, making them one extended family.

“Imagine playing cowboys and Indians with 30 of your cousins,” resident Charles Morris said during the Save Brown Grove environmental press conference, a Zoom event hosted by state delegate Elizabeth Guzman back in January 2021. “That’s how I lived… water sweet as watermelon, fresh air, no noise. It was a wonderful place,” Morris continued in his thick Virginia accent.

Like much of Central Virginia, Brown Grove drips with lush green kudzu and dense forests that are sunny and humid in summer and dusted with snow in winter. The only sound around would be the cicadas and frogs—if Interstate 95 hadn’t split the community in half in 1956, bringing with it unwanted industrial projects.

Over the past year, increased media coverage has been devoted to environmental justice communities in Virginia, from Tyrese Coleman’s piece on Brown Grove in The Washington Post to nationwide reporting on Union Hill’s battle against the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline. What puts these communities on the radar of large corporations like Dominion Energy, Southern Company, or Wegmans? Their vacant land is cheap and often zoned for industry, even when it butts up against residential areas. If the desired parcel is not already zoned as industrial, companies can request that the zoning be changed or that an exception be made, and county boards or planning commissions often accede. When backlash occurs once corporate intentions become public, these companies and county officials often react with surprise. Of course, the concerned neighbors have always been there—but, in a cluster of cases in Central and Southern Virginia, including Brown Grove, they have long been ignored.

These environmental justice communities are home to mostly Black (and often low-income) residents, and many were founded by freedmen (formerly enslaved people) around the time of the Civil War. They already have unusually high concentrations of polluting or otherwise hazardous industrial facilities in their area. They have names, but may not appear on your GPS map: Union Hill, Chatham, Brown Grove, a community in Cumberland County, and a community in Charles City County. They are unincorporated communities, and therefore ignored by their counties, states, and the pipelines, warehouses, and compressor stations that wish to build in their backyards. They are zoned for industry, or their zoning is changed to allow it. The bottom line from the powers that be is: people do not live here, and if they do, there are not enough of them, and if there are, they will not be affected.

Brown Grove has been a majority-Black community since its founding. Caroline Dobson Morris established the community around 1870. Shortly before the Civil War, Brown Grove’s Hanover County had 9,740 Black residents, about 97 percent of whom were enslaved. In 1870 the county had 8,562 Black residents—most formerly enslaved people remained in the area after emancipation.[1] The county retains a significant African-American population today, with Brown Grove being “the center of Black history in Hanover County,” as state senator Jennifer McClellan has put it.

The concerned neighbors have always been there—but, in a cluster of cases in Central and Southern Virginia, including Brown Grove, they have long been ignored.

In Brown Grove, Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. has been eyeing a 217-acre parcel across the street from the community’s oldest church. The land can be developed because of a 1995 Hanover County Planning Commission decision which officially changed the parcel’s zoning from “agricultural” to “M-2,” or a “Light Industrial District with conditions.” The Hanover County Board of Supervisors further amended this zoning in May of 2020 at Wegmans’s request so the corporation could build a taller facility than M-2 would normally allow.[2],[3] The community is already home to a busy stretch of Interstate 95, a concrete plant, truck stop, landfill, and the Hanover County Municipal Airport.[4] Though the site was officially zoned as industrial in 1995, the County has been eyeing the plot for eventual industrial development since at least 1988, according to a 1988 county planning map.

Chris French, a former Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) employee, spends a lot of time thinking about maps like the 1988 Hanover County land use plan. “Back then, when they put this together, the planning department staff at that time period… said that this is an area targeted for growth, it makes sense to make this area industrial because of the associated airpark with the airport and everything being right beside it. Which is great, except nobody understood or knew or paid attention to the community called Brown Grove at that time period.”

Brown Grove resident (and great, great-granddaughter of the community’s founder) Bonnica Cotman put it this way during a county permit hearing: “Back then, Negro communities were not recognized as a vital productive residential component of society because of the skin color of its residents.” She added that many Brown Grove activists like herself aim to “have the entire community recognized and zoned by Hanover County as residential, not just a designated portion of it,… to receive the full utility and planning considerations of other urban residential areas in the country.”[5]

Wegmans representatives seemed surprised to find such strong opposition from residents of Brown Grove, a community they did not register in their initial environmental justice screenings.[6],[7] The residents are aware that their unincorporated status is a liability—in 1995 the community applied to gain official status as a residential community to give them better standing in fights against industrial projects. Twenty-five years later, the county changed the 217-acre parcel’s protective zoning proffers when Wegmans asked.[8] Now, as The Washington Post has reported, the removal of those proffers would allow Wegmans to build on the site’s wetlands—and on the alleged graves of Charles Morris’s ancestors.

Horses on farm in Central Virginia
A typical rural scene in central Virginia, not far from Brown Grove.
Photo by Hannah Wilson-Black.

Morris says that he knows where the graves are most likely located based on the oral history passed down to him as he grew up, but Wegmans representatives have no plans to halt construction unless they find records or physical evidence of the burial site. This may be an unrealistic mission in a community where permanent mark-making and record-keeping would have been dangerous or impossible for much of its existence. In the unincorporated Black community of Union Hill, the county courthouse burned to the ground on the morning of February 25, 1869, the day the 15th Amendment (which gave formerly enslaved people the right to vote) passed Congress. The courthouse held country records of enslavement, emancipation documents, and wills—potential assets for formerly enslaved people suing former slaveholders for restitution. Some Virginia historians maintain that this destruction of Union Hill’s Black history was an act of white supremacist arson targeted at a community which dared to keep written records of its presence and its past.[9],[10]  

As for the wetlands, Central Virginia is not a particularly dry place. The Chesapeake Bay reaches its long fingers well into the state in the form of rivers, creeks, and wetlands. Even if standing water isn’t visible, hikers’ feet may begin squelching when they stumble into patches of forested wetland in Virginia’s flatter, swampier eastern half. Summer storms can be fierce here, with hot, heavy evening air giving way to sudden downpours. The freshwater forested wetlands[11] included in the Brown Grove parcel may not be obvious to the naked eye, but they absorb water that would otherwise cause flooding, according to French, who is also the current Hanover County NAACP environmental justice chair. French described the wetlands, of which he believes there are 32 acres (Wegmans says 15), as a “sponge” next to a major road that is already flood-prone. If resident testimony about the traffic caused by flooding in Brown Grove wasn’t enough, a county planning map from 1988 reveals a floodplain bisecting the Wegmans parcel. County planning maps, it turns out, also reveal much about the historical fate of “unofficial” Black communities. 

Virginia (and, indeed, the rest of the country) has a history of zoning majority-Black areas as partially or fully industrial. The Virginia Supreme Court, in one 1937 case, went so far as to declare an established Black area in Alexandria as “better suited for industrial… purposes” because there was “no real residential development” there. A report released by McGuireWoods public affairs consultants earlier this year put it simply: “Many of the first zoning maps in Virginia applied industrial zoning categories to areas of African American homes while applying residential protections to areas of white homes.”[12] Plus, many areas labeled “residential” were restricted to single-family home construction and, as a result, Black Americans were priced out of less dense, less polluted residential areas or kept out by racist restrictive covenants, creating a double-bind of inequality. This pattern is well-documented across America, from Alexandria to Chicago and beyond. To this day, Black Americans are significantly more likely than white Americans to suffer from health conditions caused by exposure to industrial pollution, such as particulate matter.[13] For instance, non-Hispanic African Americans are 40 percent more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic whites.

“Once you start… putting together the pieces,” French said during a phone interview, “you see this across the country, there is a pattern of putting industrial sites in poor Black communities or historic Black communities, that people have intentionally looked to do so.”

Residents are concerned the graves will go from found to essentially lost again in the landfill’s looming shadow.

For each of these rural, Black Virginia communities, an argument was made for why an area with people living in it should be abutted by an industrial project. In some instances, the reasoning is recorded in meeting minutes or zoning decisions that can be found with some digging. These documents echo the words of the 1937 Alexandria zoning decision: there is no real residential development here.

“The [county’s comprehensive plan] does not identify any significant historical or scenic resources on the subject Property,” reads the July 2018 rezoning application for a landfill to be placed adjacent to a historic Black school in Cumberland County. The rezoning, which was approved, changed the desired parcel from “agricultural” and “residential” to “industrial.” A “Cultural Resources Investigation” filed last year by the applicant, Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility, mentions the Pine Grove School, which a local group is planning to restore and use as a community center.[14] The small schoolhouse was built in 1917 and remains intact despite vines creeping up the chipped white paint of its exterior.

Alumni of the school and others who are interested in its preservation worry the landfill will dissuade visitors and make access to the school more challenging. In an echo of Brown Grove’s story, local hunters walking through the Green Ridge plot in August 2018 stumbled across a “probable African American cemetery” with at least 22 burial plots indicated by depressions and stone grave markers without inscriptions.[15] Green Ridge manager Jerry Cifor indicated in 2018 that the landfill would “’probably’” put a fence around the grave sites and erect informative signage.[16] Cifor also told the Virginia Mercury that earlier in the process some residents had informed him there were graves on the site, but Green Ridge’s land survey found nothing. Now, residents are concerned the graves will go from found to essentially lost again in the landfill’s looming shadow. County Board of Supervisors minutes from the rezoning approval meeting reveal the county’s conundrum: bring in revenue to offset the country’s overburdened income tax base, or protect a historic community from likely air, noise, and water pollution?[17]

Hanover County, Virginia
Hanover County, Virginia.
Image by David Benbennick, courtesy Wikipedia.

In other communities, the zoning has not been officially changed but the corporation or utility was granted an exception, usually called a “special use permit,” which lets them build in an area in which zoning is not technically compatible with their proposed facility. For the Lambert Compressor Station in Chatham, Virginia, a special permit was granted because “we find no substantial detriment to adjacent property, that the character of the zoning district will not be changed thereby.”[18] In Union Hill, a Virginia DEQ inspector deemed the site “sparsely populated,” classifying the area as “forest” rather than “residential,” despite the fact that some 60 homes lie within a mile of the site boundary.[19] The Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s report for the land did not list any cultural resources, though there are slave burial grounds and an old plantation site nearby, not to mention a dense community.[20] In Charles City County, the potential site for the Chickahominy Power Station was rezoned as “Heavy Industry” from its original mixed zoning (agricultural, business, light industrial).[21],[22] The area was attractive for C4GT Power Station and an extension of the VNG pipeline (both projects have since been canceled) in addition to the Chickahominy station because the site is also near the Roxbury Industrial Center, the biggest concentration of “light industrial” activity in the county. Multiple environmental justice communities have been identified by independent review within five, three, and even two miles of the potential C4GT station site.[23]

Hanover County, Virginia, General Land Use Plan
General Land Use Plan (revised March 12, 1986) of Hanover County, Virginia.
Image courtesy Hannah Wilson-Black.

Over and over again, established but unincorporated majority-Black communities that date back to an era of slavery have their residential makeup ignored. Why? One significant reason is that the communities are unlikely to have the ear of a local town council or city planning commission. Virginia’s governance is built on a system of counties and cities. Cities are separate entities from the county, with their own city administrative center and system of government. Smaller towns also have their own elected officials, zoning ordinances, and planning commissions. Rural communities without “town” status formed by Black Virginians in the aftermath of the Civil War were never (and still are not) represented by their own elected officials—meaning they may not get essential services such as internet, sewage, or clean water. Or accountability when a pipeline wants to move in.

Jonathan Rak, a land-use expert and one of the authors of the McGuireWoods report, explained during a phone interview that the “active and overt racism” of many 20th century zoning decisions in Virginia may not be as common today, but historically Black unincorporated communities “just aren’t heard” because of their lack of access to elected officials.

“Any particular voice they have,” Rak said, “is somewhat diluted by the size of the county.”

Other factors are involved, as well. Often, in corporate applications and cultural reviews, the presence of a community, especially a community with a common racial identity, is ignored or goes unaccounted for. Consultants or corporate representatives will try to communicate with their to-be neighbors via online announcements, not understanding that many people in rural Virginia do not have broadband internet. These outside observers also may use larger units of land to define the racial demographics of a community instead of using smaller units like census tracts, or conducting on-the-ground surveys to determine the presence of a minority community. But the biggest factor remains the lack of political power or recognition in these communities skewed further by understaffed county planning offices in Virginia’s most cash-strapped counties. Zoning changes are made with little research and the assumption that no one will make a fuss.

“Documentation by Hanover County officials to acknowledge Brown Grove’s existence wasn’t done appropriately,” Bonnica Cotman said of her community in a hearing before the State Water Control Board. “[Brown Grove] is a community that has historically been abused, disregarded, and looked over time and time again.”

Broad denial of the true impact of slavery hangs over the state like its summer humidity.

In attempts to prevent the future encroachment of polluting infrastructure or facilities on majority-minority, low-income, or already industrially overburdened communities, Virginia has passed landmark legislation over the past several years. The Virginia Environmental Justice Act, for instance, went into effect in July of 2020, requiring state agencies to ensure that “no group of people bears a disproportionate share of any negative environmental consequence resulting from an industrial, governmental, or commercial operation, program, or policy.” The new bill is a very long time coming.

“Virginia has ignored the concept of environmental justice until the last few years,” French told me. “When I was at DEQ, some didn’t even consider it to be real.”

I asked him why some at DEQ didn’t think environmental justice was real. “In my personal opinion, the agency did not know how to handle it,” he said. “And they are still learning. Historically, without a mandate like the Virginia Environmental Justice Act, the agency could just say, ‘It’s not within our purview.’” In some of the environmental justice cases, DEQ has been accused of pandering to the corporations or bending to pressure from the state’s economic planners. Some community advocates see the agency as ill-prepared to deal with environmental justice issues on its own.

Other departments are slowly taking environmental justice into account. The Virginia Department of Historical Resources has, for the first time in its history, hired an expert on African-American and Indigenous grave sites. This is a major shift, Virginia anthropologist and environmental justice advocate Lakshmi Fjord explained via email, adding that she is “presently working in five Virginia environmental justice communities targeted for all sorts of the most toxic pollution infrastructure.” If grave sites like those in Brown Grove and Cumberland County are prioritized for protection by the state, residents may no longer have to rely on corporations’ promises to respect their ancestors’ graves.

Virginia’s zoning laws and comprehensive plans could also be changed to screen for further racial discrimination. Rak explained that a major flaw in county and city comprehensive land-use plans is that they generally do not include any discussion of racial equity or how different racial groups are distributed in different zoning areas, which the state could order them to do.

“You would, at a minimum, require that the local governments at least start thinking about this as they go through their planning processes,” Rak said, adding that Virginia could require industrial zoning to “take into account the proximity of historical populations of minorities.”

Slavery Reconciliation Statue
The Reconciliation Statue in downtown Richmond, Virginia. With identical versions in Liverpool, England, and Benin, Africa, the Reconciliation Statue stands as a recognition of and memorial to the international legacy of the slave trade.
Photo courtesy
During a summer job I held with a conservation organization, a supervisor drove the two of us through a Virginia soybean farm on the banks of the Rappahannock River, stopping along the way to talk with the landowner. Later, rolling bumpily along dirt roads through the green sprouting fields, my supervisor gestured to a pair of weathered sheds just a few yards away, their gray wood walls bowed with age, storing rusty farm equipment.

“He won’t tell you this,” my supervisor said, referring to the landowner, “but I’m almost positive those are old slave quarters. Have to be 200 years old.”

As a white Virginian, it had never occurred to me that the land in our state bears the marks of America’s enslavement economy as insistently as local governments and white Virginians try to conceal them. Broad denial of the true impact of slavery hangs over the state like its summer humidity.

A “slavery reconciliation statue” in downtown Richmond asks viewers to “acknowledge and forgive the past” in its inscription. Whose forgiveness, one might ask, is being requested? I think often of those aging wooden sheds, leaning under summer heat and winter cold as oblivious drivers speed down nearby Route 17. How much more equitable would land use and planning be in our state if we recognized that access to and ownership of land has always been a racialized issue? In the Antebellum period, freedmen and women didn’t gain access to the land they had worked, so they created unrecognized communities of their own. To industrialize these residential areas is to perpetuate the inability of Black Virginians to create safe communities.

Of course, discriminatory historical land-use planning is not specific to Virginia. The national environmental justice movement can be traced back to a legal and political battle, spearheaded by Linda McKeever Bullard and Robert Bullard, over a landfill in a Black Houston suburb in the 1980s. The environmental justice movement, in a sense, began with zoning plans, because the devil is quite literally in the details and those laying out the details often conveniently overlook communities of color. But zoning and land use may also provide tools to remedy some of the historical discrimination they’ve caused. In at least a few cases across the U.S., municipalities have been trying to do just what Rak advised: take into account historic injustice when making zoning decisions.

These homes and people are not on the map you’ve been presented.

At the state level, California passed SB 1000 in 2016, requiring city and county governments to add an environmental justice “element” to the other elements (like housing or mobility) of their general land-use plan.[24] Local governments must now identify “disadvantaged” communities within their bounds and develop “objectives and policies” to reduce the health risks to such communities, for instance by prohibiting polluting facilities. The provision is somewhat broad and does not require that all objectives and policies that are named actually be implemented, but cities such as Placentia have engaged seriously with the law’s requirements. In its updated 2019 General Plan, Placentia identified its La Jolla and Old Town neighborhoods as “disadvantaged,” meaning a low-income community disproportionately affected by environmental health hazards.[25] The environmental justice section of the Placentia General Plan contains both a series of goals and specific policies which serve as “frameworks” and “directives” for how the goals can be implemented. One such policy directs the city to “Prohibit new sources of air pollutant emissions in the disadvantaged communities.”

Such a policy, if codified by municipalities across the country, could prevent residents in communities like Brown Grove from having to become vigilant activists for their own health every time industrial development comes knocking. Of course, even in Placentia this is still just one policy among many—under one goal among many. All potential development in the city is required to “seek policy guidance” from the General Plan, and an annual report is submitted to the city council to track progress on the plan’s implementation. However, because the plan’s “policies” would have to be established as ordinances and regulations before they have legal teeth, accountability may prove evasive.

Nonetheless, the language is there and could give leverage to those whose physical environments have historically been a source of environmental danger and anxiety. Being invisible to decision-makers, corporations, and government officials alike robs places and people of recognition and dignity.

Back in Brown Grove, resident Kathy Woodcock, speaking at the Brown Grove State Water Control Board hearing, admonished the board and by default Wegmans and the State of Virginia: “These homes and people are not on the map you’ve been presented.” The challenge now, for community activists and allies, is putting environmental justice communities on the map—permanently.


End Notes




























Hannah Wilson-BlackHannah Wilson-Black is an environmental writer hailing from northern Virginia. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Appalachian Voice, Euphony Journal, Sliced Bread Magazine, and ACE’s Youth Think Climate Magazine. When she’s not in class at the University of Chicago, where she’s a fourth-year undergraduate student, you can find her performing as one-third of the punk-pop band Puddlejumper.

Header photo of old stone springhouse in central Virginia by Gerry Bishop, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.