The shady bank where black, white, and red men prayed and dreamed

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Just off busy US Route 1 a mile north of Richmond, layers of history lie quietly beneath time's veil of honeysuckle vines and trees. Here at Brook Run creek at the turn of the century, slaves and free blacks gathered to picnic, preach, and ultimately plan a desperate but unsuccessful rebellion. Some 65 years later, Confederate and Union soldiers fought and died here on earthen fortifications dug for the defense of the Confederate capital.

So long ago that little is known of symbol or significance, native Americans camped or made a village here, leaving artifacts dating from 2000 BC.

Now the 20th century will put its stamp - or its foot - on this site, if a developer clears the land for a 74-acre shopping center this fall.

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Brook Run is hardly the first - or most significant - historical site threatened by a city's advance. In the public eye most recently is a planned shopping center beside Manassas National Battlefield Park near Washington, D.C., on a historic area that extends beyond the park boundary.

While the threat to Manassas was the impetus for Congressional hearings and for the possible purchase of additional land by the United States Department of the Interior, smaller sites on private land generally receive no state or federal protection. And preservationists say that land in high-growth corridors is often too expensive for private groups to buy.

For most of this century, the site at Brook Run has been overgrown, closed to the public, and forgotten by all but historians. Great lumps of earth, semicircular ramparts 85 yards long and eight to 10 feet high, are all that is left in the topography to suggest that anything out of the ordinary happened on this spot.

``I've been in Richmond 40 some years, and I never knew anything was there,'' says Gene L. McKinney, chairman of the Henrico County Planning Commission, which recommended that the land be rezoned for commercial use.

Although the site was neglected, the farmer who owned the land, part of the old Brook Hill plantation, did nothing to harm the Confederate earthworks or alter the shady creek bank where slaves and free blacks gathered.

By contrast, 95 percent of the original 75 miles of defenses around Richmond has already been destroyed as the city has sprawled out.

``The bottom line is, if you have a piece of private property and it fits with the long-range plan, it should be rezoned for its highest and best use,'' says Mr. McKinney.

But preservationists argue that this spot where black, white, and red men and women have prayed, dreamed, and died could have a higher value in helping citizens connect emotionally with events that shaped the nation.

Moments of history vanish, leaving only stories linked to the present by a physical setting. ``We need to not only read, but see and touch,'' says Louis Manarin, archivist for the Virginia State Library and Archives.

Some historical events ``frankly are not things we're proud of,'' admits Robert Giles, board member of the William Byrd Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. ``Some of them can only be lessons to us. But they represent part of our culture.''

``From the point of view of black Americans, we were part of that history and we were caught up in it,'' says Frank Thorton, a black professor at Virginia Union University in Richmond, who spoke out at public hearings in favor of preserving Brook Run.

The development, to be named ``Brook Run,'' is planned with split-rail fences in an 18th-century motif. In an attempt to compromise, the developer, Sigma of Virginia Inc., has proposed to ``move'' the Confederate earthworks and re-create them as an attraction near the shopping center's entrance. But even this hasn't satisfied many of the preservationists.

``From every standpoint, that does not cut it,'' says Mr. Giles. ``We know men fought and died on that soil,'' he continues, noting that these were the only Richmond fortifications that saw fighting three times. ``I think it's important that we treat that ground with respect.''

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