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July 12, 2013

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slave street
A slave's home. Descendants and  historians  want to
stop Danville, Va., from removing slave remains
from a former plantation. The photo is not a slave
house on the Fearn Plantation.

Preserve Plantation Cemetery in Danville, Va., White and Black Descendants Urge

City Plans to Dig Up and Store Remains of Enslaved to Make Room for Chinese Company

by Frederick H. Lowe
Descendants and historians want to stop a plan by Danville, Va., to remove slave remains from a former plantation cemetery so a Chinese furniture-assembly company can build on the property.

The white and black descendants want the 158-acre parcel, which is adjacent to the Dan River, preserved as a historical site for tourism. Danville has not said where the remains would be relocated.

"The Virginia Department of Historic Resources recommended that the cemetery not be moved and recently, the old Fearn Plantation site was recognized by Preservation Virginia as one of the places included on its 2013 list of endangered sites," said the descendants, who added that the  histories of African-American families associated with the Fearn property are some of the most well-documented among the formerly enslaved.

The site also is registered with the "Remembering Slavery, Resistance and Freedom Project," which is a partnership between the College of William and Mary and the Martin Luther King Memorial Commission of the Virginia General Assembly. Those organizations have developed events and exhibits to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by highlighting the influence free and enslaved Africans and African Americans had on the history of Virginia.

Thomas Fearn purchased the plantation land in 1783, and Danville purchased it from a North Carolina investor.

The descendents and advocates, who met and organized through social media, have issued an eight-page letter outlining the history of the Fearn Plantation, explaining why it needs to be saved and urging supporters and others to write letters and call state, county and  city officials in an effort to change the minds of Danville's leaders and the Virginia Tobacco Commission, which awarded a $1 million grant in Pittsylvania County for  GOK International Corp. to build offices. The company plans to develop the plantation site for a home, office, hotel  and furniture-assembly company.

GOK is setting up its headquarters in Danville and its assembly plant in Ringgold, Va., because the federal government has levied an expensive-import tax on furniture assembled in China.

Area Development Online, a site facility and publishing company, reported last September that GOK plans to invest $12.5 million to build its sales and headquarters at the Old Belt Line in Danville's River District.  In addition, GOK will build and construct an assembly and showroom in the Cane Creek Shell Building in Ringgold. The company plans to employ 300 workers, each of whom will earn an average annual salary of $30,000.

"We have a very good relationship with Pittsylvania County and Danville, which is important for us in reaching a decision to make our first investment in the United States. The plant's location is only an hour and fifteen minutes from the vast furniture markets of High Point, " Kevin Liao, president of GOK International, told Area Development Online.

Mayor Sherman Saunders, chairman of the Danville Pittsylvania County Regional Industrial Facility Authority, told  Area Development Online that he is delighted that Danville and Pittsylvania County can accommodate the facilities in Danville and Pittsylvania County.

The descendants and researchers, who also have online petition and Facebook page, said they are not opposed to redevelopment but would like to see a plan that would leave the cemetery and other ruins on the property intact or create a respectful alternative elsewhere that could be a draw for reunion groups and tourists.

"While in support of the economic development in the Danville area, Preservation  Virginia and various other historical advocates have urged Danville to consider an alternate design for the industrial park that would preserve and incorporate the historic resources of the periphery," supporters said in a statement.  "Local groups have expressed interest in interpreting and maintaining the site for the education and cultural heritage tourism. Heritage tourism helps make historic preservation economically viable by using historic structures and landscape to attract and serve travelers."    

Danville, the last capital of the Confederacy, owns the land, where the cemetery is located. The city was also a major center of the tobacco trade, which depended heavily on slavery and later sharecropping. The cemetery is the final resting place for up to 63 people's remains. In a statement, the descendents said the Danville could become as significant a destination as Colonial Williamsburg and other nearby sites, such as Mount Vernon and Monticello, the descendants said.

"Danville has refused to save any of the historic ruins, although the city bought the land, knowing it was a historical  site with a slave cemetery. The plans call for moving the remains to a storage vault, where each grave would have an individual container, but would most likely be combined in a single vault with remains from other slave graveyards. Danville has not disclosed where the interment site would be, but officials said they will erect a marker," descendents said.

They added: "Slavery was morally wrong. It is morally wrong to ignore such important history for a possible short-term gain of helping a foreign company."

The descendants are circulating a petition to save the Fearn Plantation. The link is http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/save-the-fearn-family-plantation.html
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