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Underground Railroad roots may lie beneath Norfolk

A secret tunnel, bones and crypts could be related to freedom fighters who took the Underground Railroad to safety. It was all discovered below a Norfolk church.

NORFOLK, Va. — Newly discovered graves and a secret tunnel lie in the heart of Norfolk. 

The discovery, made by construction workers at the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception could mean roots to the Underground Railroad.

Historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of History and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University, said the discovery truly could be related to the Underground Railroad since Norfolk was a hub for people trying to reach freedom.

"The trajectory of the pipe goes into the heart of the black community. And that could be a space you could hide until a ship was ready to receive you,” said Newby-Alexander. 

She said that whoever built the church wanted to make sure the tunnel stayed safe.

"When they laid the concrete over that section I understand it was not laid to code," Newby-Alexander explained. "Those who built it in 1858 were conscious of what was here and wanted to protect it or preserve it in some way.” 

Father Jim Curran said he was not surprised by the unearthed history because the church was always so different than others over the course of history.

"It was always unique in that there was always an interracial element. Segregation was painful and segregation was humiliating,” said Father Jim.

Since she was a young girl Pastor Associate Oretha Pretlow said, she felt safe within the walls of the church. This discovery didn’t surprise her at all.

"Every time I walked across these doors, I almost immediately left behind my troubles because I felt a safe haven here. And ironically, my ancestors came here because they felt this was a safe haven,” said Oretha Pretlow.

Owner of Capitol Construction, Will McCadden, and his team have worked on the construction project for months and he said the discoveries are like nothing he’s seen before.

“It’s really very amazing. The tunnel is three feet wide and four feet high. We’ve also discovered bones, which we turned over to archaeologists who are studying them,” said McCadden.

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