CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. -- She lay on her back on the soft graveyard soil, as still as a corpse, trying to sleep without moving an inch. Beside her and below her in all directions were ancient wooden caskets holding hair and bone and restless souls, and she feared that if she rolled over, she would violate these tombs and crush forever the mysteries they held.

In this fitful manner she slept the night, awakening from time to time to find herself at home, in bed, and then falling back asleep to rejoin the dead.

It was last May. Archaeologist Amy Grey, 25, had been working 12-hour shifts on her knees in the red clay soil, troweling for coffins in the old family cemetery that had been accidentally uncovered by a backhoe operator clearing land for a parking lot on the University of Virginia campus. By day, Grey explored the graves, and at night she could not escape them, bedeviled by the same dream.

She is not alone in her discomfort. Others have experienced macabre dreams, unnerving premonitions and simple anger. The discovery of a dozen 19th-century African American graves on prime university property has disturbed more than a long-forgotten cemetery. The find has also dredged up unresolved ancestral injustices in a city haunted by the uneasy relationship between a university founded by a venerated slaveholder and a black community that was long excluded from its aristocratic classrooms.

The small cemetery, situated along a sliver of driveway called Venable Lane, is a brisk five-minute walk from the stately antebellum core of a school still bitterly viewed by many blacks as a genteel plantation that refused them admission, except by the servants' entrance.

The graves lay under the site of a private home that had been built over them, apparently knowingly, in the late 1930s. As soon as the graves were discovered when the home was being demolished to build the parking lot, a hasty search of records was launched. It turned out that the land had been purchased in 1833 by a mystery-shrouded mulatto woman named Catherine "Kitty" Foster, and that it had remained in her family, handed down from mother to daughters, for three generations before being sold. Foster and her descendants are assumed to lie in the four adult and eight child-size coffins that were discovered, then gingerly reburied, unopened, by the archaeologists.

Breezes flow tentatively across that unmarked cemetery now hidden under a blanket of yellow straw. A drab, cream-colored cinder-block cottage occupied by an outpost of the university's anthropology department adjoins the graveyard.

Ironically, the cemetery is also literally in the back yard of the university's Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American Studies on Jefferson Park Avenue. But despite its bland urban surroundings and the incessant drone of heavy traffic from Jefferson Park, the graveyard provokes eerie sensations in some who've visited it since a spasm of local TV and newspaper publicity in May.

"Some persons have said they've had feelings of unease walking on the site, that we shouldn't do any further archaeological research," says university historian and archivist Ervin Jordan. "As if there's some sort of living presence. ... I certainly feel something when I'm there. I try to be the objective historian, but I get kind of emotional. I get chills."

For now, the university has indefinitely suspended construction at the site, and -- mindful of its public image -- has appointed a task force of experts and local residents to recommend what to do. At community meetings, committee members have faced unexpectedly intense sentiment.

"The University of Virginia for the most part has a history of keeping blacks out, which makes this find on university property so interesting and so ironic," says Jordan, who is black. "I've had in-laws who at one point urged me to get off this task force. They thought I was sleeping with the enemy. This is a very touchy, sensitive problem."

"Thomas Jefferson had quite a lot of slaves, and a lot of blacks who live here are descendants of his slaves," says Charlottesville pastor Bruce Beard, whose historic First Baptist Church has also held volatile community meetings about the site's future. "There's a very strong sense of arrogance by the university. ... It's kind of like, 'We're Thomas Jefferson's university, he was the slave master, you're the slaves.' "

And so, the university -- acknowledging a vulnerable past on matters of racial sensitivity -- faces a dilemma both moral and practical: Should construction be stopped for good? Should the bodies simply be moved to a local cemetery, and reinterred with dignity? How comprehensive a search should be made to identify surviving descendants, and how heavily should their wishes be weighed? Should the site be developed by a growing institution in need of space for expansion, or sealed off forever as a shrine to the memory and contributions of slave-era African Americans?

It strikes some people -- women particularly -- as delightfully ironic that property owned by three generations of black women has provoked such disquiet on a campus once exclusively white and male. The image of the University of Virginia's earth-moving machinery brought to a grinding halt by Foster's coffin particularly affects archaeologist Amy Grey.

"She had no power in her life," Grey says, "but she stopped the university cold."

Adds student Dana Pritchett: "It's sort of poetic justice that at this time, this black family comes out of nowhere and says, 'We shall not be moved.' "

Catherine Foster remains mostly an enigma. A free woman of mixed racial parentage, an illiterate unmarried mother who somehow acquired property -- whoever she was, she trod the treacherous borderline between black and white in unforgiving times.

"She's disturbing," says archaeologist Drake Patten, who with Grey explored the site and dug through records to find what they could about the history of the family who lived there. Like many involved in this case that bridges two centuries, Patten has the curious tendency to speak of Kitty Foster in the present tense. "She's mulatto, she's single, she's a {female} landowner, and all those things make people uncomfortable."

The site's investigators are warily mindful of colleagues caught in the middle of an ugly 1991 controversy that erupted when a Lower Manhattan slave cemetery was discovered during a major construction project.

"There are all sorts of emotional and ethical issues that arise when you're dealing with human remains, sacred space," says university anthropology professor Jeffrey Hantman.

A West African burial custom common to other 19th-century African American grave sites, household crockery placed on the coffin believed to be Foster's, intrigued them. This custom, it is surmised, was supposed to make the next life easier -- and prevent haunting by the deceased.

And so these few items of crockery remain, along with a paltry written record: In local government files, there is a single, emphatic X affixed to a pre-Civil War will. Catherine Foster's signature.

Who was this woman, and why has she become, for many in Charlottesville, a virtual folk hero?

Free Negroes stood outside the direct governance of a master, but in the eyes of many whites their place in society had not been significantly altered. They were slaves without masters. ... With hard work, skill, and luck, some free Negroes climbed off the floor of Southern society, acquired wealth and social standing. ... Yet neither were they free. Instead, Southern free Negroes balanced precariously between abject slavery, which they rejected, and full freedom, which was denied them. Their world straddled one of hell's elusive boundaries... .

-- Ira Berlin,

"Slaves Without Masters"

On Dec. 13, 1833, a caramel-skinned woman of about 40, probably wearing a patched calico dress under her winter shawl and a kerchief around her hair, walks into the Albemarle County offices with a couple named John and Mary Winn. In a room where property changes hands, she extracts from her pouch -- where she also keeps her precious freedom papers -- $450 in cash, hands it over to the Winns, signs her X as instructed and walks out of the courthouse a property owner.

But she probably conceals her explosive feeling of happiness: When you're black in a white world, female in a male world, a free black in a world of black slaves, it's best to keep a deferentially low profile.

Especially in 1833 Virginia, two years after Nat Turner's failed Southampton County slave rebellion. Since then, free blacks have been considered potential saboteurs, fomenters of slave uprisings, and a plague of new laws aimed at controlling them have been enacted. Catherine Foster goes nowhere without her freedom papers. Confronted without them, she might be jailed, kidnapped, sold back into slavery. She's particularly careful that her children always carry proper identification. Otherwise they too could quickly slip back over the nebulous border between freedom and slavery, lost to her forever.

Historian Jordan paints a speculative portrait of what her life would have been like. Virtually all her time, he says, would have been spent anticipating danger.

"She would have adjusted to it and learned to deal with it and get along as best she could," Jordan surmises.

For one thing, she would always carefully "dress down" in public, in mended dresses and plain kerchief, assuming a nonthreatening demeanor. In public, as she mingled with whites and black slaves, "a whole series of pressures would have enveloped her," says Jordan. "As far as the law was concerned, a black woman -- free or slave -- couldn't be raped": Forcible intercourse with a black woman was not a crime, Jordan says.

She would have been wary of being seen with slaves, avoiding the appearance of conspiracy.

If, as is believed, Catherine Foster washed and mended clothes at the nearby university, her day would have started before dawn. After waking on a pallet stuffed with corn shucks, she and her children would pump water from a well in the yard and gather eggs for breakfast.

After eating, with freedom papers securely on her person, as well a midday meal of dried meat and bread, she would set out in the pitch dark for the university where she would spend the day mending and doing laundry and other odd jobs for her clients. At dusk she would head home in the dark.

Foster's early life raises only questions.

Was she born free, or set free by a white father or a white owner? Did he then give her money to buy herself some land? Or did she save that $450 by dint of hard work sewing, laundering and otherwise caring for whites? Did she at some point "pass" as white, since one early census record in Charlottesville lists a white "Catharine Foster"? Was she "the girl Cate," whom a slave owner named Henry Foster in 1795 counted as his property?

During her life, she bore at least two children, a daughter Ann and a daughter Sarah. Catherine Foster died in 1863, willing the land to Ann, whose daughter Susan became the last Foster to own it. She sold it in 1906 to businessmen; the university did not acquire it until 1976.

Though Susan retained the right to move her family cemetery, for unknown reasons she chose not to do so. One local man still recalls a willow tree weeping above the little graveyard he played in as a child. The graves disappeared under a cottage built there in 1939, where they remained, awaiting a backhoe, for 54 years.

"Being a black woman, I feel close to this family's story," says graduate student Dana Pritchett, who wants the cemetery to remain and a museum built on the site. "For me, the important thing is that she did it, she got this land however she got it, she managed to care for her family and create her own space."

"Before you heroicize someone, it would be well to get a clearer picture so you can decide whether it ought to be," cautions Armstead Robinson, who directs the Woodson Institute, and was asked by the university to co-chair its research task force.

"We think that whoever Catherine Foster was -- and we still don't know -- that she had to have had a patron," says Robinson. Which raises the question:

Where are the men?

"I'm trying to find out what kind of neighbors she had, and also the fathers of those children," says Jordan. "This is a household of women who were having children but no fathers. ... Who was fathering those children?"

"One man ... said it was his understanding there was a house of prostitution near the university, roughly during the same period, and he was wondering if she was a prostitute," says Jordan. "I've been told by other people that Thomas Jefferson set up a house of prostitution to cater to the students. I've found little evidence of that."

Jordan suspects some may know more than they're telling about the Foster family.

"I've had people say to me, 'Well, I could give you some information about Catherine Foster, but I haven't quite decided whether I should trust U-Va.,' " he says. "At public meetings, people will get up and say things like, 'Well, U-Va. fired my cousin, so why should I help U-Va.?' "

"This is Albemarle County, this is Mr. Jefferson's county," says Jordan, spinning in his office chair from desk to computer to pull up stories he's collecting for a book he's writing on the university's African Americans. "People call him 'Mr. Jefferson' as if he's going down to the corner to buy a lottery ticket and he'll be right back. ... You hear 'Thomas Jefferson' till you get sick of it, frankly."

On his crowded out-basket, Jordan has a paperweight that is a green, $2 yard sale bust of the founding father. He calls it "T.J."

Jefferson, he says, was a "historical hypocrite" upon whose death some 200 blacks were sold off to pay his debts.

As a young man, Jordan couldn't afford to attend the university where he now has a library office, even though by then it had started admitting blacks. As far as the black community is concerned, he says, the university has "basically been a predator." He cites a university-backed urban renewal project in Charlottesville that has disrupted local black lives.

Jordan tells of an acquaintance forced to leave a neighborhood called Gospel Hill when the university's hospital was built there in the 1950s and move to a thriving black community called Vinegar Hill. That too was dismantled, by the city, to make way for a Sheraton hotel. His acquaintance then relocated to the West Main Street neighborhood, which now is confronting plans for further university expansion.

Rebecca McGinniss, a 100-year-old former schoolteacher, lives in West Main neighborhood and recalls the Vinegar Hill program well.

"My husband had a tailor shop on Vinegar Hill," says McGinniss. "He had to move, but no one would rent him a place where the white businesses were, so he just added a little room in the back yard. ... He never did the same amount of business, though."

McGinniss was not permitted to attend her segregated hometown school. Instead, she attended black colleges.

"We always felt the resentment, but we had to do the best we could with what we had."

Charlottesville minister Threadis E. Jones, 69, could not attend the University of Virginia either -- though around 1960 he was permitted as part of his ministerial training to take a psychology course with several other blacks. "A long time ago," he says, "every black you saw at the university had a broom or mop."

Not until 1970 did the university open its doors to African Americans. Though even its critics acknowledge it has made significant progress since then, inequities still exist.

At present, of the university's 1,211 maintenance-level employees, 51.4 percent are black. Of its approximately 18,000 students, 9.3 percent are black. Of its 1,679-person teaching faculty, 2.6 percent are black.

David Smith, an energetic Charlottesville genealogist active in the '60s civil rights movement, says acknowledging the contributions of black workers in some fashion at the Venable Lane site would be a good way for the school to attempt to heal old wounds.

"Those were black hands that laid those bricks {and} sustained the university at minimum salary, minimum kinds of opportunities," says Smith. "They could do almost anything at that school except get an education or give an education."

Over spiced shrimp in a Charlottesville seafood restaurant, Armstead Robinson, a self-described "preacher's son from Louisiana," says he thinks that ultimately relocating the graves would be both desirable and respectful.

The Foster cemetery has become a political "proxy," he said, for people who feel that "somehow, if you can pressure {the university} into not using this land, you can pressure them into not using West Main." He points out that anticipated gains in student enrollment put all state schools under pressure to expand facilities.

University spokeswoman Louise Dudley, who also sits on the graveyard task force, says the university is content to suspend all construction at the site until the committee completes its research and recommends a course of action. The university, she says, has no long-range plans for Venable Lane; she predicts that the school will suspend any further construction there for at least two years, while archaeological studies of the site -- exclusive of the graves themselves -- proceed.

Of the school's exclusionary past, says Dudley, "We acknowledge that is part of our history. We can't make it go away. But we are proud of the fact that we've become a much more diverse community." She also acknowledges local African American suspicion toward the university.

"I think there's legitimate reason there's that mistrust, the history hasn't been that good, {but} both the city and university are listening a lot better," says Dudley. "It's good we have people with memories."

But Beard says it's precisely to prevent forgetting that the graves should stay where they are.

"Almost certainly, if they take them out of that grave site and put them into a larger cemetery somewhere, nobody's going to go to that site, nobody's going to remember that," says Beard. "And that's history, that's real history, and they'll be forgotten about just like all those others who're sitting under dormitories or wherever else have been forgotten about."

Charlottesville native McGinniss believes she knows what should be done. She is 100, and her view must count for something.

"Let the people rest in peace after they pass on," she says. "Near where they lived."