African American residents of this small Virginia town are determined to block a Wegmans warehouse

·20 min read

The early December skies were foreboding as the protesters shivered in the chill outside a Wegmans grocery store. Still, they marched and held their signs high: "Wetlands over Wegmans," "Not in my backyard," "#Save Brown Grove!!!"

Among them were my cousins Renada Harris, 40, and Bonnica Cotman, 50. I've known them all my life, and I had never imagined them as activists, yet here the two sisters were, among the leaders of the group. In the past few months, I'd watched them go all-in trying to save our childhood home, Brown Grove, a historically Black community in Hanover County, Va., about 17 miles north of downtown Richmond. Brown Grove is facing, as they see it, the biggest existential threat of its 150-year history: the construction of a 1.1 million-square-foot, $175 million Wegmans distribution center.

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Last summer, Renada and Bonnica watched as protesters marched through Richmond, demanding justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue was painted with graffiti, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters went up in flames. The city that was once the seat of the Confederate States of America proclaimed a new era. Now the sisters felt inspired to make their own calls for justice.

The group outside the Wegmans store had traveled from a "drive-in" - a sit-in that, because of the pandemic, took place in cars - about 18 miles away at the Brown Grove Baptist Church, the beating heart of the historic neighborhood. Protesters from adjacent communities came, too, including Chris French, an environmental consultant who has helped lead the fight. The group peaked at 75 or so people, the organizers recall, but they were heartened that anyone had braved the cold, covid and the lingering fear - held over from before the civil rights era by many Black residents - of speaking out against White people and the retaliation that could follow.

"A lot of people in the neighborhood, the older people, they still clean somebody's house," says Renada, a hairstylist and owner of a salon with her other sister, Kimberlyn Washington. "Things have not changed that much. They've kind of gotten stuck in that realm of 'better respect those White people.' "

I moved from Brown Grove to Maryland 23 years ago, but as a writer, I wanted to follow along as the people I grew up with - Renada and Bonnica and other members of my extended family and former church - banded together with strangers from other neighborhoods to save, as they see it, their very way of life. I also wanted to understand Wegmans's side of the story and what benefits the company could bring to my childhood neighborhood.

Wegmans says it will add jobs and tax revenue to Hanover County; the folks gathered that day to protest believe the project could destroy Brown Grove. The activists note that the massive center would bring 24-hour floodlights and steady truck traffic to a site marked only by trees and swamps. The facility would sit on the unmarked graves of Brown Grove's founders, they say, and it would disturb environmentally critical wetlands that help provide well water for many homes and serve as an ecosystem balance to nearby infrastructure like Interstate 95.

"I'm afraid that if we don't put a stop to this, Brown Grove is not going to be a place that people who grew up here will want to come back to," says Bonnica, a lifelong resident and a founding member of the Brown Grove Preservation Group, a collection of concerned individuals. "The community will die."

Brown Grove, now home to a few hundred people, was founded around 1870. Many of its residents descended from Caroline Dobson Morris, an emancipated bondwoman known as "the mother of Brown Grove." Morris, my great-great-great-grandmother, was born into slavery in 1846 in Hanover, a county where more than half of the population was enslaved. She died almost a century later, in 1944.

Morris and others were buried among the trees and hidden swamps of Brown Grove. The past hangs like curling vines over other local landmarks as well, like Merry Oaks Tavern, where Patrick Henry raised the first Virginia militia in anticipation of the Revolutionary War.

Brown Grove was a quiet place when my cousins and I were young. We would ride our bikes down the road to one another's houses or to the store. If someone was walking down the street, they would wave, stop and say hello, ask how we were doing. But over the years, industrial expansion changed the way the community interacts.

In the late 1950s and early '60s, I-95 cut Brown Grove in two. An expansion of the highway from 2015 to 2017 further divided the community, even restricting one homeowner from access to his own driveway. A truck stop arrived when I-95 did; a municipal airport was built in 1969; two concrete plants soon sprang up; and a commercial landfill and recycling center for construction materials was built in 1987.

Renada, too young to protest then, watched her parents rallying to fight the landfill. But the project went forward anyway. Now trucks speed by, rumbling on the way to and from the landfill and the truck stop, and thick gray dust coats the yards and homes nearby. Airplanes buzz overhead, and some roads, which haven't been improved over the years but have seen increased traffic, frequently flood.

The house I grew up in, the graveyard where my grandmother, great-grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins are buried, and the homes of many family members all line a dirt road adjacent to the plot where Wegmans plans to build. My godmother can walk out of her back door and, within 100 feet, cross over the property line of the proposed center. During a visit last summer, I saw the signs of coming disruption: cones and orange markers, cleared ditches with long tubes, diggers and other heavy-duty machinery. All around Brown Grove and the surrounding neighborhoods, I saw yard signs with a Wegmans truck circled in red and crossed out with a slash.

Brown Grove residents say the community has long been neglected by county officials. Calls for road improvements have gone ignored. There are no sidewalks; the church has provided the only playground and public park; and some residents were only recently added to the county water system, while others still draw water from wells.

The fight for Brown Grove represents another social-justice challenge for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. He was besieged by scandal in 2019 after it was discovered that his medical-school yearbook page contained a photo of a man wearing blackface standing next to a person wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. After initially apologizing for the picture, Northam denied that they were of him, and an investigation into the matter was inconclusive. In response to claims of environmental racism in Virginia, the governor established an environmental justice council in January 2019 that makes recommendations, such as banning fossil fuel infrastructure. And Northam's administration has worked to right some past wrongs, such as returning discarded gravestones from a demolished African American cemetery in D.C.

In a statement announcing the Wegmans project, Northam hailed it as a "significant win" that would bring hundreds of jobs to the county. Northam also approved a $2.35 million grant to pay for utility extensions, broadband installation, roadwork and other related project development costs.

Although Wegmans owns more than 100 supermarkets up and down the East Coast, this project would only be the company's third distribution center. "We were surprised when we first heard that there was people opposed to this," says David DeMascole, director of supply chain planning for Wegmans. But upon hearing the concerns, "We said, Okay, well, let's understand what those concerns are, and what can we do to mitigate them or work with them." Wegmans is a private, family-owned company, he notes. "The Wegmans family is not answering to shareholders or Wall Street. They decide how they want the company run, and then that's what we do."

"We compete with big companies, right, like Walmart and Kroger and all of them, and compared to them, we're small," DeMascole says. "We're going to do the right thing. It's hard for other people outside to see that and believe it, but we'll be good neighbors because that's just what we do." The new distribution center, he explains, would be the "single biggest investment we've ever made in the history of our company," and that's why they are being "meticulous."

"We want to be good neighbors," he emphasizes. "We're not just saying that." In response to community feedback, DeMascole says, Wegmans has made changes to the planned facility. It moved an employee entrance from opposite the Brown Grove Baptist Church to a few hundred feet down the road to alleviate traffic and prevent potential accidents, and it changed a truck route to keep vehicles away from a sharp turn on a road bordering an adjacent community; residents feared the road could become dangerous with increased traffic. The company also moved a planned parking lot for trucks away from bordering neighborhoods and will incorporate trees and shrubbery as a buffer between the facility and those houses. Passersby are "not even going to be able to see our warehouse," DeMascole says, adding: "We think we've done things already to the site that weren't required, and we'll continue to look for opportunities where we can make a difference."

But some residents of Brown Grove, several of whom will share a property line with the project, say Wegmans hasn't done enough to consult the community directly. County and state officials announced the project at a meeting in February 2020 at a local school. The next day, the real estate agent representing Wegmans reached out to Brown Grove Baptist Church for a meeting with a handful of church leaders - providing, Bonnica says, only an hour and a half notice. (A representative for Wegmans confirmed the company's participation in these and other meetings with neighbors, but "none of the meetings were called by or arranged by Wegmans," she wrote in an email, "so we can't speak to when notification of these meetings occurred.") Wegmans never reached out to Brown Grove residents directly to hear what concerns the community might have, the activists say, and few of the questions they raised have been addressed.

Residents also question the benefits Wegmans would bring to the community. Wegmans won't offer any specific contributions to Brown Grove, DeMascole says, beyond tax revenue to the county, jobs available to anyone in the region and a walking trail planned for the edge of the property. When asked if jobs were being set aside specifically for residents of nearby communities like Brown Grove, DeMascole says, "We haven't set goals" on that, but "the expectation and strategy is that they will mostly be local." There are also no plans to improve the community by creating sidewalks or playgrounds.

Renada is skeptical that the Wegmans project would be any different from when other companies have come along over these many years, which she says has only brought pollution and nuisance and no apparent benefits to the community. "The governor said that Wegmans is going to be good neighbors," she argues, "but none of the other businesses that have been here for years have been good neighbors." When it comes to industrial growth in Brown Grove, she says, "We don't see the direct impact. We just see the businesses that come here and take." Now, as she put it in a meeting with other organizers, "We're learning how to fight for ourselves."

On Saturday mornings, Chris French can be found bicycling through the forest or hiking in the swampy marshland near his home in a subdivision that borders Brown Grove. His interest in the Wegmans distribution center began at that February 2020 meeting. The county, the state and Wegmans made it sound as if the project was a "done deal," he said later. But he had questions. He wondered why the county had asked Wegmans to apply to Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality for a wetlands permit - as opposed to an industrial storm-water permit that would require Wegmans to examine downstream effects like potential pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. (Wegmans representatives said they have "satisfied" all permit requirements for county and federal agencies. DEQ declined to comment on a case currently under litigation.)

There were also errors in how the company calculated the wetlands that would be affected, French contends, with Wegmans initially claiming the project would disturb only six acres of wetlands and then revising to approximately 15 after a public outcry. French believes, based on his own analysis, that the project may affect up to 32 acres of critical wetlands. "These holes are so gaping, you can drive a Wegmans distribution center truck right through it," he says. "Out of 22 years of experience, I have never seen anything like this before, where rules have been blatantly disregarded."

In fact, French worked at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for more than four years as a water-quality planner. Now he's facing off against the regulatory agency and his former co-workers - including the manager assigned to the Wegmans project who took him out to lunch his first day on the job, he says. "That's not fun," French says of being on the opposite side of old colleagues. But he believes he has an ethical obligation to make sure, when the stakes are this high, that everyone involved is following the rules. "I'm doing what's right," he says.

DeMascole says the site has been planned around the wetlands in order to minimize its effects. "We don't need to use the whole property," he says. When it came to the site design, "We moved it and tried to shape it to work around the contour of the land." The property could have held a 2.1 million-square-foot facility, he points out, but the center is a little more than half that size - although there is room to expand it in the future, he acknowledges.

Beyond its environmental value, the wetlands are also the final resting place of Brown Grove's ancestors. I grew up hearing about the graves, and elders in the community, like Charles Morris, who is in his 70s, say they still remember where they are.

It is illegal under Virginia law to disturb any cemetery, and Wegmans must preserve any human remains or historical artifacts found while excavating the area. The company hired experts to comb the official records and walk the property, looking for signs of burial grounds, DeMascole says. There is an active cemetery - the one where my grandmother and other family members are buried - near one side of the property. This cemetery is not on the proposed distribution center site, but unknown graves may exist beyond the boundaries of the graveyard. And Morris says there are older, unmarked graves on another side of the proposed site - across from the church, where the bulk of the facility would be built - that have not yet been found.

"We've hired consultants, archaeologists that have searched the site and searched all of the records, and they've found no documentation to say that there are graves there," DeMascole says. "They have not found anything." If additional graves are discovered, he says, Wegmans will follow all state procedures and protocols for the "remains to be dealt with in the appropriate manner."

Brown Grove residents aren't surprised that no documentation of centuries-old unmarked graves could be found in the official records. Its history, like that of many other African American communities, has been passed down in tradition and stories. Just because the graves cannot be located via county records or other research does not mean they don't exist, residents say, or that the search for them should be over. They also wonder why the archaeology consultant did a walk-through of the property to search for graves instead of using ground-penetrating radar, which can be effective at locating old, unmarked graves. Wegmans representatives said that method wouldn't work well in an environment with tree roots and other disturbances to the ground.

More pressingly, Brown Grove residents wonder why Wegmans would be comfortable disturbing potential graves at all. But Wegmans argues that it makes a big difference that the graves haven't been located yet. "This land is commercially available, zoned industrial," DeMascole says. "The fact that if these remains are there, and they have not been found or identified - should that mean that the land should just remain vacant forever?" He adds, "There's other people that own this property, and they feel they have a right to sell the property. From our perspective, we found land that was zoned properly and said: This is in the perfect location, and we're going to be good neighbors, and it's all going to work out."

After the February 2020 meeting, French and Bonnica joined a group called Protect Hanover, made up of residents from nearby subdivisions, that formed in opposition to the Wegmans project. The two hadn't met before, but they quickly began poring over Freedom of Information Act requests and scheduling meetings with local and state politicians, activist groups and others who could help with the cause.

Bonnica soon brought in her sisters, Renada and Kimberlyn, and neighbors to help with the onslaught of work. The newly fledged activists found themselves spending hours each week reading historical, legal and scientific documents, holding meetings and planning community events. Even after a year of working to block the Wegmans site, Bonnica says, "It's the center of our world right now."

In February 2021, Virginia's water control board met virtually to review Wegmans's application and vote on whether the company could build on wetlands. At work, Renada held her comb in one hand and her phone, to text with other organizers, in the other, watching the online meeting on a laptop propped on her salon workstation. It was a Friday, the busiest day at the salon, and she couldn't take off for the all-day meeting.

Renada told her client, who had an hours-long appointment, that she would be unusually quiet so she could focus on the meeting and then say her piece during the virtual public comment period. She had barely slept the night before, her nerves were coiled so tightly. Renada spoke to the board around 4 p.m., and the meeting went into the evening. Around 7, one of the board members announced they would cut short the public comments in order to hold a vote to approve or deny the permit for building on wetlands. The board voted: four in favor, three against. The permit passed, but with a much narrower margin than any of the activists had expected.

French, for one, was optimistic. "We got three people on our side," he says. "If this decision was to be challenged, if it was to go legal somehow, a judge is going to pay attention to the fact that it's that close."

A month and a half later, exactly such a legal challenge was announced. Patricia Hunter-Jordan, president of the local NAACP chapter, stood on a podium in front of the stained-glass windows of Brown Grove Baptist Church and announced that the Hanover County NAACP, Protect Hanover and residents of nearby communities would file a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Wegmans and Air Park Associates, the current property owners. The lawsuit alleged that the parties did not meet environmental justice requirements for engaging the community or considering alternative sites, and submitted erroneous information on the wetlands. "Let's get into some good trouble," Hunter-Jordan said, quoting the late Rep. John Lewis, over the noise of passing trucks.

A separate lawsuit was filed by several residents who live close to the property against the Hanover County Board of Supervisors. The suit alleged that the board improperly amended land-use commitments previously made by the property owner to allow the project to move forward. Though the complaint was dismissed in November 2020 for lack of standing and it was later amended, a Hanover Circuit Court judge wrote an opinion that the case had no standing and would not move forward.

Brown Grove protesters are hoping that another environmental justice case in Virginia provides a precedent for their own fight: In January 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Union Hill, a historically Black community about 70 miles west of Brown Grove, had not been properly consulted on the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In its decision, the court said that "environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked."

In June, there were breakthroughs and new complications for both sides. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a federal permit, a key step for Wegmans to proceed with the project. After all permits are completed and the property is purchased, DeMascole says, Wegmans hopes to begin construction as soon as the end of the summer.

The news came as a shock to Renada, Bonnica and French. "You've got two lawsuits that are currently happening," says French. "You've got now potentially a third that might occur" - a likely challenge to the federal permit in addition to those appealing the state's decisions.

Wegmans also now needs an air-quality permit after including backup generators running on diesel power in the project's site plan, according to Hanover County officials. This issue is raising a new round of concerns in the community about air pollution. "There's a lot of people who would like to suggest this thing is a done deal," says French, who has become the environmental justice chair of the local NAACP chapter. "It most definitely is not."

A week after the federal permit was issued, Brown Grove took an important step toward recognition as a national historic district, which could help the activists' cause. After the community submitted a detailed, heavily researched application, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources determined that Brown Grove is eligible for inclusion on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

The Corps permit is contingent on maintaining the existing state of known historical landmarks that fall under the protection of the National Historic Preservation Act. When the permit was issued, the only eligible landmarks were the Hanover Court House Battlefield and Merry Oaks Tavern; the latter is the only site to be affected by construction. But now, the entire community could qualify for the same or similar protections under the act. When reached for comment, a Corps spokesperson said via email that they had not yet received information about Brown Grove's eligibility and would follow the same process that had guided the initial permit.

Gaining recognition as a historic site is a major milestone on its own, since only 2 percent of 95,000 entries on the National Register focused on the experiences of Black Americans as of 2020. The Brown Grove Preservation Group has begun fundraising to complete the process for the listing, which could not only assist in this fight but also help to forestall future development. "We're going to stick to it till the end," Renada says. "We don't want to give in."

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Tyrese Coleman is the author of "How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays," a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award. Melody Schreiber is the editor of "What We Didn't Expect: Personal Stories About Premature Birth."

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