County to give Free Hill Cemetery to historical society

First step to studying, renovating burial ground

By Heather Michon

Fluvanna Historical Society Director Tricia Johnson gave a presentation on Free Hill Cemetery in Columbia at the Board of Supervisors meeting held March 1.

The burial site was established early in the 19th Century as the final resting place for the large community of free people of color who gave Free Hill its name. Interments continued well into the 20th Century. But in 1965, the Columbia Town Council decided to log the wooded parcel and use the proceeds to fund road projects. The logging process caused tremendous damage to the site, including the loss of headstones and other grave markers.

“The county’s decision to log this parcel – which they knew was a cemetery for black people in 1965 – for financial gain was a disrespectful and disgraceful act of racial discrimination,” said Johnson. “It continues to cause pain in this community today.”

Johnson told supervisors there was a grant available that would provide funds to continue the archaeological work at the site, and provide fencing, historical signage, and eventually a memorial. However, under the conditions of the grant, the site had to either be owned by, or in the process of being acquired by a religious institution.

She requested the county give up the property to the Columbia Baptist Church, which had a long historical relationship with Free Hill Cemetery. During public comments, The Reverend Bruce Boling spoke of the rich history of the cemetery and said that if the county gave them the property, the church would do the upkeep and preserve the history of the site going forward.

Payne said there could be legal issues with the county directly conveying the site to a religious organization. As a workaround, he recommended that the supervisors consider a quitclaim deed that allowed the Fluvanna Historical Society to take possession of the property. “If thereafter, the historical society wanted to convey it to the church, I don’t see any impediment to that.”

To meet the March 15 deadline for the grant, the supervisors decided to have the county write a letter of intent stating their intention to convey the property to the Fluvanna Historical Society and approve it during their work session on March 8. More actions may be needed later in the year to formally convey the cemetery property to the historical society.

Johnson-Morgan Appointed to Planning Commission

The Supervisors recognized the services of Columbia Planning Commissioner Ed Zimmer, who is stepping down from the Commission after several years. 

Selecting a replacement for Zimmer proved to be a challenge.

Carolyn Ley, who moved to the Columbia District around 15 years ago, brought hands-on experience with the planning process from the other side of the table. In the early 2000s, she and her husband had developed a small subdivision in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It was a long process, but it was a joyful process,” she said. “We made almost no money, but we learned a lot.”

“I do believe that it’s a mixture of art and science,” she said of the planning process. “There’s an art to working the master plan, working with what your community wants, working with what the developers are trying to get, you’re listening to everyone, and then you’re trying to find the best paths.”  

Lorretta Johnson-Morgan is a Fluvanna native who remembers the “thriving county” of her youth. “When I lived in Columbia as a young girl, you could walk down the road, you’d see stores and people and shops. Then when we moved to Fork Union there was the academy, there was a laundromat, there was a grocery store, all kinds of businesses…I don’t see that anymore and I don’t see the county as thriving.”

Her vision for Fluvanna was to balance history and rural character with growth development to “make Fluvanna vital again.” 

County Attorney Fred Payne said one possible issue with Johnson-Morgan’s candidacy was that she already sits on the Economic Development Authority (EDA). The law is unclear on whether a person can sit on multiple or overlapping boards, but Payne said he was inclined to take a conservative interpretation of the law. Johnson-Morgan said that her term on EDA ends in June, and she was willing to resign from that position if she was appointed to the Planning Commission.

Supervisors Patricia Eager (Palmyra) and Chris Fairchild (Cunningham) supported Ley, with Fairchild arguing it was best to keep Johnson-Morgan’s experience on the EDA and bring Ley’s experience to the Planning Commission. Tony O’Brien (Rivanna) argued that Johnson-Morgan brought an important perspective and voice to the Planning Commission.

By tradition, the motion for a candidate is given by the supervisors for the district with the vacancy – which put Mike Sheridan (Columbia) in a tough position. 

“I’ve known Ms. Ley for about ten years, and she’s involved, a go-getter. The other one used to chase around high school and beat me up. I think I still got a knot back there from where she whacked me in the back of the head,” he joked. 

“I struggle with these decisions,” he said after some further discussion. “Ms. Ley is super-intelligent. Ms. [Johnson-]Morgan is a lifelong resident.” 

In the end, he nominated Johnson-Morgan, with O’Brien providing a second.

The vote split 2-2, with Sheridan and O’Brien voting aye, and Fairchild and Eager voting no. Mozell Booker (Fork Union) cast the deciding vote in favor of Johnson-Morgan.

She will become the second new member of the Planning Commission in recent months. In November 2022, supervisors appointed Andre-A’Bryanna “Bree” Key to the Rivanna seat following the death of her mother, Commissioner Gequetta Murray-Key.  

Opioid settlement   

In the only action matter of the evening, supervisors unanimously approved a resolution indicating the county’s continuing participation in Virginia’s $530 million settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors. In the coming years, around 30 percent of the settlement funds are expected to flow to cities and counties hit by the opioid epidemic. 

While it’s unclear how much of that money will go to Fluvanna County, Payne and County Administrator Eric Dahl indicated the amount could be substantial. 

“It’s a very highly-organized and elaborate structure for distributing the proceeds from each settlement,” said Payne.

Under the first round of settlements between the state and some major manufacturers, the county is expected to receive just over $300,000 over the next 20 years.  

This new resolution will allow Fluvanna to participate in the proceeds from a recent second round of settlements between the state and major distributors.

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