Microsoft Azure: Historic black cemetery erased for Microsoft data center development

Jan 10, 2023 | Posted by MadalineDunn

Following an extensive investigation by ProPublica, it has been found that Microsoft and local officials in rural Virginia helped erase a historic black cemetery by downplaying its cultural significance in order to pursue data center development.

Back in 2014, when the giant was looking to expand its data center, surveyors came across the cemetery when clearing land for the development. When they discovered the cemetery, Mecklenburg County, with Microsoft and a pair of consulting firms, had to determine whether the cemetery was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government's list of sites worthy of protection. To do this, they enlisted the help of archeologists, as was required by federal law; the archaeologists returned their recommendation that the area should be avoided, and declared that the site did indeed have historical significance.

Alexis Jones, a consultant with a firm called Enviro-Utilities, returned that the recommendation would be challenged, and alongside the consulting firm, the county also pressured them to reverse their recommendation: the cemetery belongs on the National Register. However, the archaeologists edited their reply only to add that it couldn't be ruled out that the burials are associated with white tenant farmers, however, they still concluded that "All the evidence available at this stage suggests" the cemetery was the cemetery of an African American community. Failing to get the answer it wanted, the firm turned to another archeologist, who agreed with the other archaeologists, and stated that "Jim Crow would not have had whites and blacks buried that closely together."

Following this, and the county's inability to secure the answer they were so desperately seeking, it proceeded with running a legal notice among the ads and classifieds in several weekly print editions of The Mecklenburg Sun, as compelled by state law. However, in doing so, it failed to directly notify Mike Moseley, the great-grandson of Stephen Moseley, buried in the cemetery. They did, however, contact relative David Moseley to buy nearby land, showing they had the means to contact the family, raising the question of whether they willfully avoided contacting the family at the time, because it did not suit their interests.  

According to reports, 37 graves were found and the state Department of Historic Resources ended up giving permission to excavate the remains, a process which was rushed and happened during heavy rainfall, meaning the graves were in wet soil for days, saturating the remains and leaving them in very poor condition. The bodies were eventually moved to just four cemetery plots one town over, marked with a plaque reading 'assorted bones.' The gravestones of Stephen and Fred Moseley were the only ones that survived the move.

When commenting on the erasure of the cemetery, Fred McGhee, Ph.D., an African American archaeologist, said the US is one of the few developed countries in the world that doesn't categorize archaeological sites on private property as cultural heritage, with black historic places often the first to be disregarded. 

Microsoft, a tech giant that often prides itself on its corporate social responsibility and social impact, commented: "The County followed all applicable federal, state, and local laws."