Frank Washington says he has visited ancestors, buried in family cemeteries in Thoroughfare, since he was a child, riding his bike on the road past grave sites that date back to the 1800s.
A few weeks ago, on that same road, Washington found a locked gate, a no-trespassing sign, and the dirt road to one of the family plots blocked by a large mound of gravel.
The family received no notice of a change in circumstance, and Washington said they were threatened with lawsuits if they chose to bury anyone else in the cemetery.
“There was no respect for us when this road was closed off. There was no consideration of how it felt not being able to continue to work on our gravesites, to pay our respects, and to show pride in those lines that had gone before us,” Washington said.
Located west of Haymarket on Va. 55, Thoroughfare is a historic enclave with roots dating before the Civil War. It was a self-sustaining, agricultural community established by indigenous Americans and former enslaved people, some of whom intermarried, according to descendants.
Victoria Price, Frank Washington’s cousin, said her great-grandmother was forced to walk the Trail of Tears. She traces her roots to Thoroughfare, and said her Native American ancestors are also buried in the cemeteries.
Little is left of Thoroughfare now, however, other than Thoroughfare Road, some older homes and the small, informal cemeteries that family members say are under siege by possible new development happening amid a surging real estate market.
Local landowners, however, dispute those claims, saying the family cemeteries have remained accessible to descendants as required by state law. One property owner, however, raised objections to new burials in a historic cemetery on his land, noting they can only take place with the owner’s permission.
The Farm Brewery at Broad Run, which opened four years ago, owns several acres in and around Thoroughfare. Owner Michelle DeWitt said the brewery’s properties do not contain gravesites, as far as they know. But they do own two gravel roads that lead to one of the unplatted cemeteries on adjacent property that is at issue in the recent controversy.
DeWitt said the brewery keeps a locked security gate on the main road and recently had gravel delivered to repair some potholes. The gravel is only a temporary obstruction, however, and a second driveway to the cemetery has remained open, she said.
“I’ve never denied access to anybody,” DeWitt said Monday. “We’re 100% behind preserving the cemetery. It’s a beautiful little spot.”
Washington, however, said he never knew about the alternate entry to the cemetery and that his calls to the brewery about the obstructed gate were never returned. That and other recent changes to the area – including some surveyors’ flags discovered near another family resting place – have descendants worried.
“It seems like now, even in death, they have to fight for a name,” Washington said of his ancestors. “We have to fight to make sure that they have value in death, value they may not have had while they were alive here.”
Calling attention to the cemeteries’ fate
On Saturday, April 10, Washington and representatives of several community groups held a press conference “to protest the threat of obstructed access to and possible removal of historic African-American cemeteries” in Thoroughfare, according to an event press release.
Standing beneath a tent erected next to the road leading to the plots, family members wearing matching family-tree T-shirts held up signs as participants talked for nearly two hours about the importance of preserving the cemeteries.
Washington said there were no phone calls from neighboring property owners about changes around the cemeteries and said family members instead received threats of lawsuits from people “claiming ownership of a cemetery that had been a community cemetery for all these years.”
Joyce Hudson, of the Alliance to Save Carver Road, said there are striking similarities between the historically African American Carver Road Community, in nearby Gainesville,and Thoroughfare. She urged everyone to “stand up for what’s right.”
Before leaving the lectern, she also posed the question, “How many Civil War graves are being threatened to be moved?”
Karen Sheehan, of the nonprofit Coalition to Protect Prince William County, said the group stands with Thoroughfare “to protect the homes of these descendants of freed slaves and Native Americans within our cherished rural crescent.”
“Our county’s leadership has a responsibility to protect its citizens and its homes,” Sheehan said.
The Rev. Cozy Bailey, president of the Prince William NAACP, said he was honored to support the families’ efforts to protect Thoroughfare and its history. Washington thanked Bailey for helping to secure a lawyer to assist them.
During the press conference, Washington never said who blocked the access to the family cemeteries or made the threats about the graves, but noted: “At some point, someone made a decision that we no longer have a right to honor and pay respect to our ancestors. At some point, someone made the decision that they can prevent us from being buried alongside our loved ones.”
Attempts at new burial prompts pushback
At least two family cemeteries in Thoroughfare are separately platted in Prince William County land records and are therefore protected. But two cemeteries at the center of the families’ concerns are not formally designated and are located on land that will soon be up for sale.
The “Cornelius Allen gravesite” and the “Allen Home Place,” also known as the Potter’s Field cemetery, are located on a 2-acre parcel owned by W.M. Tinder, Inc.
Realtor Kemper Quaintance, who represents W.M. Tinder Inc., said his client has owned the investment property for 30 years and has always allowed descendants and others to visit the cemeteries, as is required by law. Quaintance also noted that someone recently came onto the property to clear away brush and erect a fence around some of the gravesites, all of which was fine with the landowner, he said.
But problems arose over the prospect of additional burials on the property, something that is not allowed without the landowner’s permission, according to state law. As a result, a letter from Tinder's attorney was sent to a nearby landowner notifying them that the cemetery cannot further expand without such permission, Quaintance said.
“Just because your family members are there, if you don’t own the property, you don’t have the ability to expand” the cemetery, he explained.
Those concerned about the cemeteries' fate could buy the properties, but the price will likely be $200,000 or more based on current land prices, which are rising quickly amid the current real estate boom, Quaintance said.
Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, directed county staff to look into the history of the cemeteries and what might be done to preserve the families’ access. Justin Patton, the county’s archeologist, said Monday he had just begun that work. Patton said Virginia law is clear about some aspects of historical cemeteries but murky on some specifics.
Whether a cemetery becomes separately platted as a cemetery is “site specific,” Patton said. A title search could determine whether there’s any mention of a cemetery in the archival record. But even if a cemetery is mentioned in a property transfer somewhere along the line, it does not guarantee that descendants have rights to the property, Patton said.
If family members can’t purchase a cemetery property – and are not able to have it separately platted -- the gravesites would still be protected by both Virginia law and Prince William County ordinances, which dictate the preservation of informal family cemeteries.
If the site is developed commercially, the new owner must hire a professional archeologist to map out the limits of the gravesites and then cordon them off with a fence and buffer. The same rules apply if the land is developed as part of a residential subdivision, according to Wade Hugh, Prince William County’s director of development services.
State law mandates that all property owners allow access to cemeteries to family members or descendants as well as for genealogical research. But that access can be limited to reasonable days and hours.
Cemeteries can only be relocated under a court order through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ burial permit process. The county has not yet been notified of any such plans for any of the Thoroughfare cemeteries, Patton said.
Washington said Tuesday that descendants are troubled about restrictions that could cut off future burials in what they consider a "community cemetery." He further said there have been no recent burials on the private property containing the cemeteries, but that family members have scattered some ashes there.
"The two cemeteries in question were always places we grew up believing we would have a place next to our ancestors," Washington said.
Washington said the group has launched a GoFundMe to raise money to hire an attorney to research how and when the properties were sold, how descendants could retain rights to the cemeteries and whether there are any other historic gravesites in the area.
Washington said he has already researched the community’s roots and discovered that much of Thoroughfare used to be part of the Cloverland Plantation, the records of which include names of slaves likely buried in the area. While the slaves had no last names, each was assigned a value ranging from $50 to $500. Some had no value at all, and some were even called “idiots,” he said.
Washington said he was struck by how little value was placed on the lives of the “very people who rose above, took this land and nurtured it to sustain the community that allowed us to grow and become the people that we are now.
“And that same type of lack of value and respect is what I feel [is] happening right now in this community,” he said.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include additional comments from Frank Washington, who said no recent burials have taken place in the cemeteries on private property. Reach Cher Muzyk and Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org