Searching the living to find the dead

From her hilltop home in Dumfries, Emma Keys Waters remembers as a little girl watching a funeral procession of poor black farmers carting a wooden casket on a horse-drawn wagon.

It was the early part of the 20th century and mourners walked from the center of town, past Dumfries Cemetery, and into an area lush with trees and brush. Their winding path led to the final resting place of many loved ones — the colored cemetery.

The cemetery, adjacent to what is now Dumfries Elementary School, is now a crown-shaped dell of overgrown vines — cathedral-like overhead — with heavily covered moss fieldstones, the tombstones of the era, plotted in the tough, dank soil.

This now-hidden cemetery is one example of the hundreds of African American and slave burial grounds throughout Prince William County–overgrown, lost and neglected.

However, in time, those cemeteries will once again become documented pieces of history in Prince William County. The Prince William County Historical Commission is working on a project to locate lost cemeteries — documenting and mapping them.

tapping into history

Ron Turner, the Gainesville representative to the commission, has spent the last 10 years locating and recording the sites of old burial grounds. Using mapping equipment and his keen interest in history and genealogy, Turner has documented more than 400 cemeteries countywide.

Many of the county’s newly found cemeteries have been slave and freed-slave burial grounds, according to Turner. His research focuses on local lore passed down from generation to generation. For the project, he has interviewed dozens of Prince William’s older residents who have led him to lost cemeteries.

“It takes most of the time to interview older residents and then I have to get permission to search the property,” he said.

Long before the arrival of Interstate 95, the strip malls, town houses and bustling intersections, the land was divided into hundreds of generous plantations and small farms. As a way of life in rural Virginia, farmers owned slaves, as many as 20 per house, according to the Manassas Museum.

The first county census in 1790 counted 4,704 slaves: 40 percent of Prince William’s total population of 11,615, according to historical documentation.

Slaves, forbidden to read or write, relied on storytelling and sharing family histories.

In addition to interviews with older black residents, Turner’s exploration focused on the histories of former plantations, which often lead to the discovery of slave cemeteries.

Turner will document a cemetery only if he sees it firsthand. Periwinkle, a common cemetery plant, granite fieldstones, and sunken earth are sure indicators of a cemetery, he said.

And his findings, neatly typed and bound into three thick volumes, have uncovered missing pages of Prince William’s history book.

SLAVE graveyards revealed

About nine fieldstones lie scattered about an area on the former Moor Green plantation along Flint Rock Road, south of Manassas.

A 200-yard wooded area, with scattered grave depressions laden with periwinkle, lies between Wellington Road and the Va. 234 Bypass. It has been documented as a slave cemetery for hundreds of slaves who worked the former Larkin family plantation there and possibly at neighboring farms.

Throughout the 1800s, about 80 slaves worked the fields at the Liberia plantation in Manassas. Manassas Museum historical researchers have yet to locate a slave burial ground on the property, according to Roxana Adams, deputy director of the museum.

In the fall of 2000, archaeological digs around the 1,600-acre Bel Air plantation near Minnieville Road surprisingly uncovered human remains — said to be that of slaves — buried in shroud. The Ewell family, the original owners of the plantation, claimed there were no slave burial sites on the property. The family is said to have owned 20 to 25 slaves in the late 1700s, according to documentation.

When slavery was abolished, many of the burial grounds continued on as designated colored cemeteries, Turner said. “It was just carried on after slavery. If your parents were buried there, people continued to be buried there.”

For example, an abandoned and overgrown cemetery located along Fleetwood Drive was documented in 2001. It was where slaves who worked on the Fleetwood Plantation were buried. During the Reconstruction era, the same land became the cemetery for the Webster family, descendants of Fleetwood Plantation slaves. Turner estimates that 150 people are buried there.

abolition prompts new cemeteries

In other cases following slavery, freed slaves did not have access to the land where their enslaved parents were buried, leading to the establishment of church and family cemeteries throughout the county.

A large number of these cemeteries were located in freed-slave settlements like Thoroughfare, in western Prince William, and Batestown, an area northwest of Dumfries near Prince William Forest Park, he said.

Waters’ father, Magruder Jackson Keys of the Keys Plantation, gave the plot of land in Dumfries to his black workers for burial sometime in the late 1800s. Personal property tax records from that era indicate that Keys did not own slaves. Although Ebenezer Baptist Church Cemetery records were destroyed in a church fire in 1924, church historian Joyce Webster said local lore suggests former slaves were buried in the cemetery located along Old Bridge Road near Occoquan. The small cemetery is still used by church members.

Map helps blacks locate ancestors

Researcher Eugene Scheel helped the Historical Commission locate slave cemeteries throughout the county to develop an African American Heritage map in 2000. Adopted by the Historical Commission, the map provides the estimated locations of 70 slave and freed-slave cemeteries.

According to Scheel’s map, Manassas’ Rose Hill Cemetery, still used today, is said to have also been a slave cemetery.

Exact details of who may be buried in the unmarked fieldstones in Rose Hill and Ebenezer Baptist Church cemeteries are not available –a conclusion that is typical in black cemetery research, according to Karen Hughes White, executive director of the African American Historical Association in Fauquier County.

“For one thing, you’re looking at several generations and it’s often the older people who knew are deceased, others have left,” White said.

Longtime Manassas resident Evelyn Fields, 82, said her parents and grandparents are buried at Rose Hill Cemetery and is not sure if slaves were buried there but admitted there is a possibility.

“Right after they came out of slavery they had family cemeteries,” Fields said, recalling a number of families in Manassas and Brentsville.

Development clashes with SANCTITY

In a growing county of ongoing land development, Turner said, one of the best things to happen to some of the hidden cemeteries is a nearby store, parking lot, or housing development because of states laws aimed at protecting historical areas.

Virginia law requires that abandoned cemeteries be preserved or relocated at the expense of the land owner. Local circuit courts make the final decision on whether a cemetery should be preserved or relocated.

In the new Paradise subdivision, located off the western dead end of Sudley Manor Drive, a wooden gate surrounds the Pinn family cemetery, a small city of fieldstones and cracked headstones overlooked by neighboring town houses. Prior to the housing development, the cemetery was overcome by thick brush and hidden among Walnut trees. The Pinn family may have been freed slaves, Turner said.

Across from the entrance to the IKEA furniture store at Potomac Mills, the Nash Family cemetery is located on a grassy knoll beside the parking lot. Gated and well-kept, developers were required under proffer commitments to keep the sacred area of marked and unmarked graves.

“There’s a great need to preserve and care for them, but there is also the financial need to do so,” said White, who has been researching slave and post-slavery cemeteries throughout Northern Virginia.

As for the hidden cemetery in Dumfries, town historian and longtime Dumfries resident Lee Lansing wanted to clean up the small area and build a gate from Dumfries Cemetery to the African American cemetery. After a fruitless campaign in the 1990s to spark interest among local organizations and churches in such a project, Lansing gave up.

Sam Bauckman, who is on the Board of Trustees for the Dumfries Cemetery, said it could cost more than $10,000 to rejuvenate the old cemetery grounds, complete with a gated entrance connecting the colored cemetery to the town cemetery.

“No one seems to have any interest in it. I think it’s because the community is not aware of who is buried there,” Bauckman said.

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