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‘This is living history’ says group fighting to keep historic slave homes in place

Posted at 10:50 PM, Feb 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-25 23:37:27-05

BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. -- A group of Virginians are fighting to keep what they call a 'vital piece of history' in place, while Botetourt County officials work to remove the history to a new location.

On a February day the group came to honor the enslaved men and women, who lived, worked and died…at the now Greenfield Preston plantation, just outside of Roanoke.

What may be seen as a Black history celebration, is somewhat of a funeral for a group insisting the county wants to bury a piece of history.

Slave homes 3

Historic slave quarters

“This is living history. It doesn`t have to die,” said Cheryl Sullivan Willis, Descendant of the Sullivan family.

Cheryl Sullivan Willis is a descendant of the slaves who worked on the land.

“It's just a dishonor to the life that lived here,” said Willis.

Built in the 1700s, Revolutionary War hero Colonel William Preston transformed Greenfield into a plantation from a frontier fort.

Preston owned large numbers of slaves in Botetourt County.

Richard Moore is a descendant of Colonel Preston.

“I visited here with my Grandmother when I was a child. And all of the buildings were intact.  And it was just a very old place,” said Moore. “I remember going in the house. It was smoky, it felt old, just the oldest place I`ve ever been in. Even then, it was 200 years old.”

Historic slave quarters

Historic slave quarters

Fast forward to 1994, Botetourt County’s Board of Supervisors acquired the historic Greenfield plantation to pave the way for new development.

“There was a lot of public input. There was public meetings, public hearings,” said David Moorman, Botetourt Deputy County Administrator.

As a compromise, county leaders formed a Citizen Advisory committee hoping to build a history park on the land.

"But you're talking about 800 acres. Why not just build around that? And just leave everything else intact?” asked CBS 6 reporter Sandra Jones.

“Right, that's something we hear a lot,” said Moorman. “It was just a very developable, attractive piece of property for Commercial development.”

Greenfield plantation

Greenfield plantation

In October, protesters mounted opposition over the county’s plan to move the last standing historic kitchen house and slave quarters. And level the hill believed to have unmarked graves.

County leaders said they plan to move the two historic slave quarters here to a concrete foundation, less than a mile away from its original home. They said their intent is to preserve history.

The county did an Archaeological survey that turned up nothing.

A judge denied injunctions to stop the county’s plan.

“The punch in the gut was that it was denied so quickly without a more formal hearing,” said Moore.

“A lot of times people don’t treasure history until the history is gone,” said Willis.

Historic slave quarters

Historic slave quarters

The opposition group insists the county is destroying history.

Moorman disagrees.

“Well, absolutely not. In fact, the county is trying to do the opposite,” said Moorman. “One of the things that the county is trying to do is to make it easier for businesses to locate here, for them to grow here.  So, they can create jobs here. So, county residents can work where they live."

But some critics disagree with Moorman’s assessment.

“The past is slipping away, and we should be thankful for what we have and try to work together,” said Moore.

He said that’s why they’re fighting to keep black history in Botetourt county.

Cheryl Sullivan Willis, Descendant of the Sullivan family

Cheryl Sullivan Willis, Descendant of the Sullivan family

“What they’re doing is no different than the way the slaves were treated so many years before,” said Willis. “In death, they have no dignity.”

Friends of Greenfield Preston plantation said the county has now moved the historic summer kitchen and slave cabin down the road from its original site.

The group raised $40,000 with a goal of $200,000 to buy the land from the county. But they said the county refused to sit down with them and work out an agreement.