|Mike and David Moseley at an ancestor's grave|
(Photo by Christopher Smith for ProPublica)
Construction site excavators often unearth surprises, but what comes after the find can be more disturbing.
"Nobody working to bring a $346 million Microsoft project to rural Virginia expected to find graves in the woods . . . but surveyors happened upon a cemetery. The largest of the stones bore the name Stephen Moseley in a layer of cracking plaster. Another stone, in near perfect condition, belonged to Stephen’s toddler son," reports Christopher Smith for ProPublica.
"This is not as bad as it sounds," an engineering consultant wrote in March 2014 to Microsoft and an official in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, who was helping clear hurdles for the project — an expansion of a massive data center. "We should be able to relocate these graves." But archaeologists, which federal law required, said the cemetery was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because it was for "a community of landowners who farmed tobacco in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction," Smith writes. Their report "stressed the cemetery’s significance to African American life and death, citing the fact that Stephen Moseley and his relatives were Black,' and advising: "It is recommended that the area be avoided."
The county and consultants challenged the recommendation. "They sent the report to another archaeologist, seeking a second opinion," Smith writes. "But the archaeologist didn’t go along. . . he rejected the notion that some of the people buried there might be white. 'Jim Crow would not have had whites and blacks buried that closely together,' he wrote. . . . He suggested that the original firm conduct additional historical research. 'More work needs to be done on Moseley family members to identify who’s in the graves,' he wrote in an email to Jones’ boss, who forwarded it to the county. . . . The county and its consultants ignored the advice."
The county and consultants continued to pursue the property for Microsoft. They "ran a legal notice tucked among the ads and classifieds in several weekly print editions of The Mecklenburg Sun," Smith reports. "The second week the notice ran, the paper published a front-page story [about another subject] under the byline Mike Moseley. Moseley is a staff writer. He is also Stephen Moseley’s great-grandson. . . . Mike Moseley would not have been hard to locate, had the county actually tried to find Stephen Moseley’s descendants." Mike Moseley told Smith, “Everyone who works for the county knows me. They know who we are. It’s hard to understand how they didn’t come talk to us.”
When Smith asked Moseley "if he’d seen the notice in the pages of his own newspaper, he responded: 'Do you read the classifieds and the ads? I do not.' . . . Like his nephew, David Moseley heard nothing from the county about the threat to the cemetery. The soft-spoken retired schoolteacher and administrator, who is now 85, grew up on the land adjacent to where Microsoft was building its data center." He told Smith, “Somebody would have called me if they moved the cemetery."
Smith reports, "In the months after the notice that ran in The Mecklenburg Sun, workers kept finding graves, ultimately 37 of them. . . . A crew dug up each of the graves, collecting bones, casket fragments, metal handles and hinges, etched epitaph plaques, a pair of eyeglasses, an ivory comb. The remains and other items were packed in plastic crates and stored in an office. Months later, all of it was reburied in four tightly packed, $500 cemetery plots one town to the north." The county did not reply to Smith's questions about the handling of the issue, Other than County Administrator Wayne Carter saying the newspaper notice was sufficient to comply with the law.
Smith writes: "In Mecklenburg County, before Microsoft took possession of the land — for free, with significant tax breaks, along with state development dollars earmarked for struggling tobacco farming regions — the Army Corps [of Engineers] raised no concerns about the development’s compliance with the [National Historic] Preservation Act. Nor did the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the agency tasked with enforcing state and federal preservation laws, make any effort to step in and protect the site. . . . The Army Corps and the Department of Historic Resources facilitated the cemetery’s legal erasure."
David Moseley and other family members, "still own the eastern 83 acres of the property," Smith writes. "Every so often, David Moseley or another family member gets an offer to buy their remaining land. Sometimes the correspondence is signed by Wayne Carter, the county administrator who oversaw the permitting process for the Microsoft data center. David asked Smith, "If they can find us to buy the land, why couldn’t they find us for the cemetery?”
Fred McGhee, an African American archaeologist, told Smith: “We are among the only developed countries in the world that considers archaeological sites on private property to be private property themselves rather than cultural heritage. Black historic places are some of the first to get maligned.”