County to Dedicate Free Black Settlement
Daily Press (Newport News, VA)
August 15, 2003 Friday
JAMES CITY — Before archaeologists dug up the earth, before a historian combed the records, Lafayette Jones Jr. knew his family’s roots were buried under the trees off Centerville and Longhill Roads.
He was schooled in the land’s history as a little boy, when his grandfather would take him squirrel hunting in the woods. The elder Jones sometimes carried a long piece of thin wire to pierce the ground for evidence.
“Now Grandson, this is what used to happen right here,” Jones, now 60, remembers his grandfather saying upon hitting what he believed was a grave, or the remnants of a building. “I’m saying, ‘Why is that old man telling me this?’ Now I know the significance of it.”
On Saturday morning, the county will dedicate the land as Freedom Park, acknowledging it as the site of the first free black settlement, the Revolutionary War Battle of Spencers Ordinary, and other historic activity. But Jones and residents of the Centerville community hope more will be done to honor the site’s place in black history.
“This part of history was not taught in the public schools. If the family didn’t teach it, it wasn’t taught at all,” said Jones, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who has spent three years tracing his family’s lineage back 13 generations. He said many residents didn’t know their ancestors lived as free people before the Civil War until he pointed it out to them.
Jones’ relatives lived as farmers, carpenters and masons on what is now the county park. That land makes up about half the 1,200 acres once known as the Hot Water tract.
The Hot Water tract was owned by the master of nearby Green Spring Plantation. When William Ludwell Lee, the one-time owner of that plantation, died in 1803, his will ordered that his slaves be freed. He provided for them to live at Hot Water.
Based on records and conversations with relatives, Jones believes his ancestors lived freely on the tract before that, as sharecroppers for Lee. They intermarried with the emancipated slaves who settled on the property, he said.
“Wilmore Jones, James Jones, Etta Jones,” Lafayette Jones said standing in the park, jabbing the air toward the spots where his relatives’ modest homes once stood.
Jones will speak about the site and its importance to the African-American community at a brief naming ceremony with county officials at 11 a.m. at the entrance to the park. Following the ceremony, Centerville Community Day will take place 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
The county has completed the first phase of construction at the wooded parkland, with a one-mile entrance road and a parking lot. Volunteers have cleared hiking and biking trails.
The Centerville community is waiting to see what more the county will do. Jones has collected about 135 signatures from residents requesting that the park include a museum with historical trails and markers for “America to learn about the plight of slaves and free blacks in America.”
County parks officials say history will have a role at the site, but its prominence will depend on how much local money and grants become available and what archaeologist Alain Outlaw uncovers in his continuing excavation. Possibilities for the site include reproducing part of a building (the type and era has not been determined) or constructing a walkway with signs, said John Carnifax, the superintendent of parks.
Local historian Martha McCartney has already prepared a history of the free black community in the area — based primarily on tax, court and Census records — for the Friends of the National Park Service for Green Spring, Inc.
Last year, Outlaw and his team from Archaeological & Cultural Solutions turned up the remains of a late 17th- or early 18th-century homestead consisting of two wooden houses — a planter’s home and a slave quarter — and three outbuildings.
The team also found five root cellars, which were typically found under slave quarters and used to store their few possessions. Inside the cellars were everyday items such as a pewter spoon, a thimble, straight pins and a orange ceramic milk pan.
Now, Outlaw is preparing to excavate a cemetery on the site. Examining the skeletons will yield information such as the ethnicity of the residents and what kind of work they did, he said.
Outlaw said the county’s timing in dedicating the park — exactly 200 years after Lee bequeathed the land to his slaves — is noteworthy.
“To me, that’s real significant. That they’re opening the park, they’re calling it Freedom Park, and it’s 200 years,” he said, “and families, descendants, are still in this area.”
Daphne Sashin can be reached at 223-5684 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org