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For Black Virginians, Fight Against White Supremacy Continues

People seated in chairs
In this Feb. 19, 2019, file photo, residents of Buckingham County sing along at a Town Hall meeting about a proposed compressor station in Union Hill, Va., for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. A federal appeals court has thrown out a permit needed in Virginia by developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. A three-judge panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the permit for a natural gas compressor station on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

In 1869, the Buckingham County courthouse - and the records within it - burned to the ground. One historian says it was another blow to African Americans in the commonwealth, part of over 200 years of theft and exploitation committed by the white aristocracy, which continue today.

The cause of the fire has been debated for decades, but Dr. Lakshmi Fjord, a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia and former Buckingham County resident, believes it's quite clear what happened that night.

According to Fjord, former slave owners burned the building down, and everything inside, to avoid paying restitution to the people they’d enslaved before passage of the 15th Amendment. The courthouse held all of the records and documents pertaining to people enslaved in Virginia. Thousands of names and stories dating back to the founding of the Virginia colony in 1607 were lost to history.

Court house
The present day courthouse in Buckingham County, which replaced the one that burned down in 1869. (Photo used under Creative Commons 2.0)

In her research, Fjord says she found similar incidents throughout the South during that same night, implying the fire wasn’t an isolated incident, but part of a coordinated effort to destory records of the atrocities of slavery.

“In other places those courthouses were burned, and they were the places where there were two times the number of free Black males,” Fjord said. “It was just total fear and greed.”

Intentional or not, the destruction of those records hurt Black residents, who lost their histories and chance for restitution. This historic transgression hasn’t been  forgotten by those who live in Buckingham today.

Now, over 150 years after the burning of the old Buckingham Courthouse, residents of the historically Black community of Union Hill are still fighting for their rights. Recently, they’ve faced threats from outside corporate interests seeking to seize their ancestral homes and land to build polluting infrastructure or mine precious metals.

Bill Perkins is the deacon of the Warminster Baptist Church, about five miles from Union Hill. His family history covers more than a generation in the county.

“Five generations of my family have lived in that neighborhood, I’ve still got sisters, nieces, and nephews living there,” Perkins said. “It's been a long time, us being [in] that neighborhood and my grandparents and parents are buried there.” 

Freedmen and women founded the community of Union Hill to build better and brighter futures for their families in the aftermath of the Civil War. Men like Taylor Harper, who in 1867 purchased land from a Virginia slave owner for $15, made permanent homes there that would remain with the original families to this day.

Little did Harper know, over 130 years later, Dominion Energy would come to Union Hill with a multi-million dollar deal to buy out his and several other families' ancestral lands so they could build a compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline there. After many refused their offer, Dominion threatened eminent domain on multiple properties in Buckingham.

In response, protests and counteractions took place all over the commonwealth. Among those protesting was Richard Walker, a community advocate and great great grandson of Harper.

Walker grew up in New Jersey but would come to Union Hill every summer throughout his childhood to visit his family.

Between his family's stories and his first-hand experience, none of the continued attacks on his community surprise him. To Walker, Dominion's attempts to take their homes is just another instance in a long history of violence, harassment, and race-based attacks on Black people in Virginia.

“As far as I'm concerned, it’s just a part of the historical systemic racism that has maintained itself for hundreds of years in Virginia,” Walker said. “They felt that they could come in here and just railroad some Blacks in Union Hill, and we just weren't having it.”

John and Ruby Laury, a married couple who farm in Union Hill, were also vocal in their opposition to the pipeline

While Ruby moved to Virginia from California in 2003, John's family, like Perkins’ and Walker’s, have lived in the community for five generations. The idea of having to potentially leave a place where his family has lived for over a century led him to join the fight against Dominion.

“If that proposed compressor station had come in and operated, the pollution and the destruction from that alone would have caused us to have to leave,” John said.

After spending over a decade in Union Hill, Ruby says she fell in love with her new home and was terrified at the prospect of a compressor station destroying it.

“I really came to love Buckingham,” she said. “The clean air, blue skies, starry nights, it was just beautiful, and they wanted to come in here and destroy that.”

After five years, the citizens of Union Hill claimed victory over Dominion Energy in the U.S. Court of Appeals. But even after winning the battle against the pipeline, the fight is far from over.

The five-year struggle resulted in a division throughout the Union Hill community, with some wanting to take Dominion’s money, while others wanted to resist. And little did those in Buckingham know that while all of this was happening, a Canadian company called Aston Bay Holdings was drilling for gold in Buckingham.

Many of the residents who live in Buckingham County are worried that the sites, which lay one to three miles from the Union Hill community, could have disastrous environmental effects on the area.

“If they start gold mining, it’ll most likely destroy our whole neighborhood, our church and cemetery cause where they’ve been drilling that is less than a mile away from it,” Perkins said.

Although the General Assembly was considering a moratorium banning mining, it was amended to a study of the environmental effects of gold mining Residents say now the question is what comes next for the residents of Union Hill? With the potential moratorium out of the question, there’s nothing stopping Aston Bay or any other company from mining in  Buckingham. Residents wonder what other incursions or invasions lie ahead.

“I'm just concerned about what's going to happen because my uncle is 90 years old and I’ve got a cousin that’s 97. Union Hill is the only place they’ve ever lived so where would they go?” Perkins said. “It’s gonna be devastating.”

Union Hill is a freedman community that, from its inception, has had to fight against tremendous odds and battle inconceivable amounts of oppression, just for the right to exist. And over a century later, the descendants of those freedmen and women have to do the same exact thing.

John Laury says it all goes back to money. It’s what led the plantation owners to burn the Buckingham Courthouse down, and it's what's leading corporations to disturb the peace in communities all over Virginia.

“When the dollar sign comes along, it gets people to turn their heads and try to put the dollar before people,” John said. “That's the same mess that has been going on since day one.”

But to Laury, no matter how much money is thrown at them, or who decides to oppose them, fighting for the core values that represent Union Hill and those who founded it, will always be a priority.

“You will always find a few who will resist,” he said. “But with or without money, we have to always stand for righteousness, and truth, that's how it's always been.”

CORRECTION: We misspelled Aston Bay Holdings. The error has been corrected.