Richard Brown began his first day in the world in 1935 in Freetown, a little community of some dozen or so houses behind Brownsville Market. He’s never left it. His parents were born there, too. And his grandparents set up together in married life there, according to their family Bible, in 1869. Brown isn’t sure if the Civil War freed them from slavery, but he thinks not. They were already free. That’s the way the family remembers it.
For 140 years since then, the community of black families who built and passed along humble houses on the high ground above the slopes of Stockton Creek lived there undisturbed. The four acres of open ground along Rt. 250, opposite D&W Market, was owned by the Johnson family and at least one of their graves was behind the family cabin that in more recent years housed Ward’s Small Engine Repair. That shop is gone and the cabin was bulldozed a couple of years ago in anticipation of a gas station and convenience store plaza, proposed by the property’s new owner, Jeff Sprouse. It’s not clear if his plan will result in Albemarle County’s largest or second largest array of pumps. But the idea is to build a facility that will entice motorists and truckers off Interstate 64 to refill their tanks and get something to eat.
Meanwhile, on the south side of Freetown, the Yancey family, owners of Yancey’s Lumber Mill and the pastureland along I-64 that Stockton Creek runs through, have asked the county to amend its Comprehensive Plan, the document that sets out just where growth of any type will be directed and how it is regulated, to create a 184-acre light industrial park on their land, most of which is now zoned rural, as well as permission to construct from 1.1 million to 1.8 million square feet of buildings. Charlottesville’s Fashion Square Mall contains a total of 570,000 square feet.
The residents of the unpretentious old houses of Freetown Lane are sandwiched between projects that threaten their tranquility, their wells and water quality and potentially their ability to stay in place.
Albemarle County zoning officials have concluded that Restore’n Station, as Sprouse has named his plan, will require a special use permit because of uncertainties over whether it can stay within the 1,640 gallons per day water usage limit on the parcel. A review of the building’s design and site plan by the Architectural Review Board, the third so far, was cancelled by the recent snow storm.
Brown built his small ranch house in 1968 on property his father owned. Only two houses have been built in Freetown since then. The neighborhood’s origin traces to the generosity of one Berrell Mason, according to Brown, who sold a lot of the property to blacks in roughly two-acre lots. “Everybody liked him. He was a really nice man. One of my mother’s cousins was named for him, Mason Washington. It was named Freetown because the freed slaves settled here. There was an older gentleman who lived in a two-room log cabin, Lewis Tucker, he said he was here when the Yankees came over the mountain. He died in the 1940s in his nineties.”
The family names of those who made Freetown were Winston, Washington, Mills, Jackson, Brown, Wood and Tucker, Brown recalled. Most were related to the others through marriage. Most of the Freetowners had large families. Typically, seven or eight people were living in the two-bedroom houses, he said. There were enough that in the evenings boys would gather after supper in a flatter, open area in the center of the neighborhood to play baseball. Most folks went to church at Piedmont Baptist in Yancey Mills. “On Sundays, when people were off, they didn’t have much to do,” Brown recalled. “We would go up to the road and sit and watch the cars go by.” Brown was the first in his family to learn to drive and at 16 began driving a school bus that picked up black students from Nelson County, Batesville, Crozet, and Ivy on a two-hour route and carried them to Albemarle Training School, then the black high school. He left by 7 a.m. and was due at the school by 9:05. He graduated from then-new Burley High School in 1951, long before schools desegregated.
“Most everybody gardened. We raised sweet potatoes, corn, peas, cabbage, lima beans and tomatoes. Practically everyone had an apple tree. We had a walnut tree, too. We raised a couple of hogs very year. Late in the fall there would be a communal hog-killing day. Everybody was happy here back then.”
For their livelihoods most worked for private families on the big farms and estates in Greenwood. Cars would be sent early in the morning to pick them up and women would go to cook and clean and men went to farm. Brown was captivated by Lang Gibson’s recent memoir, For the Love of Greenwood, about Gibson’s childhood there, because Brown was familiar with so many of the people Gibson referred to. Brown’s grandfather was the head cook at Miller School. His grandmother cooked at Mirador and Seven Oaks and his mother cooked at Casa Maria and Scott’s Castle.
“Freetown people worked for somebody they knew and the people were nice to them. In the old days the county supervisors would come in and ask you what you wanted. But they don’t bother with that any more.” His family members always voted, Brown said. “They believed in that.” But they typically were uninterested in civil rights issues and did not pay much attention to them, he said.
“Some [Freetowners] left to go to northern cities or to Richmond. They helped build Sugar Hollow Dam and the Skyline Drive. Some were prominent; nurses, teachers, engineers. Some worked for the C&O—my father and a cousin. Some were ministers, insurance agents, real estate men. Some went into the navy and the air force. A lot of people came out of Freetown and did good things for the country,” said Brown emphatically.
Brown started out working at Acme Visible Records in Crozet and eventually became the first black supervisor in the sheet metal shop. After Acme, a filing system manufacturer, folded, Brown became a bus driver for Charlottesville Transit Service and retired in 2004 after 17 years of driving. “I miss it every day,” he said. “It was new every day. Never boring.”
Brown became involved in the gas station’s development and is especially upset at the prospect of noise from 18-wheelers, which often do not cut off their engines. He wrote two short speeches and delivered them before the supervisors. “As property owners and tax payers we only want to be treated fairly,” he said. If only people pushing the plan would try to stand in the shoes of Freetown folks, he said.
He has contended with Sprouse before. Sprouse had graded around Brownsville Market when he owned it without setting up silt fencing, and rains carried a heavy load of silt into Brown’s pond. “He ruined it.” Brown said. A pond 10-feet deep ended up being 5-feet deep and Browns’ favorite catfish, which he had stocked and waited on for 3 years, were buried in the bottom. Brown sued Sprouse to get the pond restored but agreed to a settlement before the case was finally resolved in court. The experience has given him a deep anxiety about silt and other runoff from the expansive gas station project.
Jonathan and Stacy Hunt settled in Freetown seven years ago. “We had been living in an apartment in Crozet and wanted to buy an house,” Jonathan Hunt said. “A friend of mine at the Piedmont Housing Alliance, which had our house then, told me it was available, so we went and looked. There was almost nothing affordable in Crozet. We liked that it was tucked away and in an old neighborhood and the house, though only 1,200 square feet, still had character. Richard Brown told us about family members of his that had owned it. David Fisher [another longtime Freetowner] filled us in on who lived here. The neighborhood is full of all kinds of people. There is a sense here of the legacy of Freetown as a land grant to former slaves after the Civil War.
“We love Crozet and we wanted to be here. Freetown is nothing fancy. I could walk away from the house, but I couldn’t walk away from my neighbors now. Everybody looks out for everybody. It’s great. No one is rich, but they are all really, really great people.
As for the looming development surrounding them, Hunt said, “It’s scary. It’s even petrifying in terms of privacy, water, safety, home values. We see nothing good coming from being downhill from a four-acre gas station. We all have our life savings in our houses. Of all the bad things we could imagine—we know the [front acres] are zoned highway commercial and that Sprouse has rights—but he couldn’t have found something more damaging to the neighborhood than what he wants to do. We’re all on wells and we’re worried they will go dry or be contaminated. We get no help from county when we try to push back against this. And we are definitely worried about the light industrial proposal. It is game-over for us if Yancey goes through. We love our neighborhood and it’s one of the oldest in Crozet. People are going to be affected who’ve lived their whole lives here. It will be really sad if we get pushed out.”