Virginians Fight To Protect Black And Indigenous Cemetery

Supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia are voicing their support for relatives of around 100 freed slaves and Native Americans whose gravesites have been disturbed in a private property owner’s land clearing.

“It angered me and it broke my heart to see what happened there,” said supervisor Pete Candland, of Gainsevill, Va., at a May 4 board meeting, according to Native News Online. “Part of the accountability is understanding how the county fell short and how we can address it.”

The gravesites lie in the town of Thoroughfare in northern Virginia. Due to a long history of settlement, there are three historic cemeteries in the area, one of which is in the far corner of land near a brewery.

Bill DeWitt, the co-owner of the company that owns the parcel and whose wife owns the brewery, said last month that he cleared two and a half acres of forested land to plant crops and corn. Additionally, he said he had no knowledge of the historic Scott Cemetary on the property at the time and assisted that no excavation took place.

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“All we did is we cut down trees and pulled out stumps,” he said, according to Native News Online. “We didn’t excavate to the point where we would exume or knock down headstones.”

Many of the graves at the burial sites do not feature prominent markings or headstones. Justin Patton, an archaeologist in Prince William County, said he heard reports of clearing on DeWitt’s property, made a site visit, and notified police of a non-permitted land clearing on what he knew was a historic cemetery. 

Frank Washington, whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery, recently discovered that the property adjacent to the brewery holds the graves of those who were enslaved.

“What this has grown into is a passion to really show the respect … that I feel the ones who came before me and paved the way for me,” Washington said to NBC Washington. “Let them rest in peace and show them the dignity that a lot of them didn’t receive in life.”

Curiously, the road to the cemetery, which is owned by the brewery, has been blocked off. Both Washington and NBC Washington have attempted to reach out to the brewery, but have not received an answer over the blockage.

“The fact they feel like they have the right to block us off from our heritage and history — it’s a hard pill to swallow,” Washington told the news station.

Worries of a second family cemetery nearby being disturbed have also recently grown as surveyor stakes have gone up around it.

Washington and others with ties to the area have formed the Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare in order to try to make sure the cemeteries and other historic sites in the area are preserved.

“I would like to have some kind of stone put on each grave that we find, even if we can’t put a name on it just so they know they haven’t been forgotten,” Washington said. “That’s my ultimate goal.”

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