Bone fragments, teeth found at 12th high school grave site - INSIDENOVA.COM: Education

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Bone fragments, teeth found at 12th high school grave site

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Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 10:31 am

Bitten by what she calls “the genealogy bug” in the 1990s, Carolyn Lynn has spent years tracing her father’s family history, even launching a blog called “Prince William County Genealogy” about two years ago.

But despite her extensive research, Lynn said she hit a wall in her searching long ago. The grave of her great-great grandfather, John Henry Lynn, a Civil War veteran, was missing. And although she found a county notice of his 1884 death, she could find no obituary, and he wasn’t buried beside his wife, Edna Ann, or their daughter, Martha.

“I could never figure out where he was buried,” Lynn said earlier this week. “I’ve been looking for years.”

Lynn’s family mystery was solved this week, but not in a way she ever expected.

Disappointed and angry

The discovery of John Henry Lynn’s likely grave site, as well as those of his parents, William and Cordelia (Keys) Lynn, came as a result of a decision to remove and relocate what is now thought to be a 100-year-old Lynn family cemetery – to make way for a football field for Prince William’s newest high school, set to open in the fall of 2016 near Va. 234 and Hoadly Road.

Although Lynn says she is “elated” about the discovery of her family’s cemetery, the removal of the grave sites has left her and other members of the extended Lynn family -- many of whom still live in the county – disappointed and angry. They want to know why Prince William school officials didn’t do more to accommodate the cemetery or notify area residents about plans to disinter the graves, a process that began on Veterans Day.

“When they were interred, that was their home. They expected to be there forever,” Lynn said of the 11 to 13 Lynn family members – including four small children -- believed to be buried at the site. “Nobody thought somebody would build a football stadium over them.”

Derek Lynn, a Woodbridge resident and family descendant who learned about the grave sites from recent news reports, said he wants the cemetery restored, especially considering his family’s long history and contributions to the county.

According to family research, the Lynn family’s roots in the county date to the 1740s, and ancestors include veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and, more recently, a longtime Prince William School Board member for whom Fred M. Lynn Middle School is named.

“We’re trying to bring this to everyone’s attention,” Derek Lynn said of the decision to move the cemetery. “These [people] spent their whole lives trying to improve the county, and now they’re out there trying to dig them up. … All we want is for the grave sites to be put back the way they were and left alone.”

Phil Kavits, spokesman for Prince William schools, said the cemetery must be moved because it’s near the middle of an area slated for the high school’s football field, which cannot be moved because of wetlands on the 110-acre school site.

Changing the building plans, even if possible, would be expensive and significantly delay the opening of the high school, Kavits added. In response to calls about the cemetery, school officials have posted their reasons for moving the grave sites – and details of the cemetery’s July 2013 discovery – on the school system website.

“There [is] no reasonable alternative given the site and given the constraints we [are] under,” Kavits said in a recent interview. “This is, first and foremost, something that is very badly needed for our students and for our community.”

School system criticized for lack of transparency

Prince William school officials’ decision to move the cemetery has sparked criticism not only from the Lynn family but also from members of the Prince William Historical Commission and local civic associations.

Bill Olson, chairman of the commission’s cemetery committee, said he’s not convinced school building plans couldn’t be shifted to accommodate the cemetery and says the school system did not do enough to notify the community about plans to move the graves.

Although Olson and county historian Justin Patton met with schools officials at the cemetery site on Sept. 3, neither understood that the school system planned to move the graves so quickly, Olson said.

“It seemed to be rather surprising because we thought there would be a general announcement with an opportunity to discuss the specifics of this,” Olson said after a recent commission meeting at which the cemetery was discussed. “Right now, I don’t have any information to know whether this is a ‘last resort.’”

Olson and Patton said state law requires that grave sites only be disturbed as a “last resort” or at the request of family members.

“The Historical Commission generally likes to see cemeteries preserved in place; that’s their preference always,” Patton added. “There should be a compelling reason.”

Similar criticism from local civic associations and other concerned residents led county officials, including Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, and Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, to call for a change in policy requiring that county officials be notified before an application to disinter historic gravesites is submitted to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Nohe, whose district includes the new school site, introduced the measure Tuesday. It will be discussed at the next supervisors’ meeting, Nov. 26.

Sifting the dirt by hand

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources granted Prince William schools permission to move the cemetery late last month. A legal notice of intent to disinter the graves was published in the Washington Post in September, DHR spokesman Randy Jones said.

School officials and Boyd Sipe, lead archeologist with Thunderbird Archeology, the Gainesville-based firm hired to clear the site, say the grave exhumation is being handled with dignity and care.”

Bone fragments and some teeth have been recovered from graves at the site. Any biological materials found are being evaluated by a skeletal biologist at Towson University, Kavits said Wednesday.

“We don’t know what the ability will be for identification” of the remains, Kavits said. “But that will be a major point of their efforts.”

Bits of coffin wood and nails found last week helped archeologists determine that one of children’s graves dates to about the 1840s, Sipe said.

That clue, along with county land deeds and court records, led local historians to identify the cemetery, said Don Wilson, a Virginia librarian at Bull Run Library, home of the county’s main source of genealogy resources, the Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center.

Carolyn Lynn said she’s grateful for the community support for her family’s cemetery and has mixed feelings about the graves. Although she would like for her relatives to rest in peace, she does not want to stand in the way of the new school.

What bothers her most, she said, is that school officials did not try to get in touch with the family earlier. She received an email from a school official on Tuesday and said she hopes to be involved in reinterment plans. She prefers to have her ancestors’ remains stay on the property, but is not particularly hopeful about it.

“We have a right, as family members, to help determine where the remains are moved,” she said. “Do I want them to stay where they are? Absolutely.”

Derek Lynn and his father, Richard Lynn, went to the cemetery uninvited Tuesday morning. They snapped several pictures of the site and had an impromptu meeting with David Cline and Keith Imons, both associate superintendents with Prince William County Schools, who were called to the site after the Lynns arrived.

Richard Lynn said he will fight to keep the grave sites on the property.

“A graveyard is sacred. You don’t ever disturb it. We were taught that when we were young,” Richard Lynn said Wednesday. “What kind of message is this sending to our students? There’s no respect anymore.”

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  • cat lady posted at 11:08 am on Wed, Dec 4, 2013.

    cat lady Posts: 4

    In my heart I can not see how the school board supervisors of this county can justify moving gaves.. These family members where put to rest many many years ago. Now the county decides to build a school. Why didn't the county pull plots of the land to see who owned it and if there were any problems with the site like "gaves". It is a sin/crime to go forward and build a school less lone a football field so the players can trampled over graves or if all the remains where found.
    I have a friend from England and she says "If the county can spit on the land they will build on it" The growth in PR. Wm Co. since I have been here since 1972 is unbelieveable.. Here's a thought if you stop growth and I myself feel its about time. Traffic is so bad because of the growth, county builds houses, apartments and strip mall then they build the roads or try to widen the roads and give the people that have to travel to work gridlock!!! . "Backwards ways" .We would not have to waste the time of people and pay the county officals to have meetings about building a school on a plot of land then find out there is a grave site "Really". In my heart I feel this needs to be closed and find another site and"Do your homework "

  • Paul Miller posted at 4:21 pm on Sun, Nov 24, 2013.

    Paul Miller Posts: 365

    Good points. I'd like to think that a developer wouldn't have just bulldozed through the graves, though.

    Not sure what to think about the graves. On the one hand, why can't the school build around them? We have little cemeteries all over the place, like in the parking lot at Potomac Mills and at Howison Park - both examples tastefully built around and shielded with foliage, so there's a good chance people pass right by and not realize they are there. But as you mention, moving cemeteries also is nothing new.

  • defectiveperfection posted at 11:50 pm on Fri, Nov 22, 2013.

    defectiveperfection Posts: 2

    You don't have to have an account to view this article, though I did have to create one to comment on it. Anyone and everyone can read it. Besides, the school board doesn't have any control over the articles published about them, they just assign people to give interviews when the newspapers want 'em. I think your assumption that the website and its owners are under the school board's control is absurd. I'm not saying the board's perfect, believe me when I say I have my grievances against them as well, but there's no way they would ever go so far as to persuade the media to cover up something this trivial.

    Let's remember a few things as we move read, shall we?
    1) It's mostly written from the family's perspective, and we have to account for that bias. It doesn't go into much detail about how the county has to handle the situation, the finances behind relocation, the feasibility of changing the plans. I know they county can't/won't release all of that, but by blankly saying they don't care about the family or the deceased is ridiculous. They are obligated to follow the law, and if we trust them with our students' education and lives, why can't we trust them with the deceased? I know that seems to be a bit of a stretch, but the county's reviews such as this article are what keep them on the straight and narrow, that's why journalism exists!
    2) Let's be real, they're out to build a school, not destroy a family's history. It's nothing personal, it's just a matter of mishap. They could have very easily not bothered to accommodate graves, or not bothered to have the remains examined and then notify the family, and not responded to media inquiry, but they didn't. The only reason the public knows about this is because of the county's transparency and disclosure of a sensitive matter. Instead of playing the family out to be the victim, why don't we take a moment to think about the fact that the county is doing what they can to make sure things are handled in an economically feasible manner that best suits the situation. If they spent excess money to make the family perfectly happy, we'd all be here complaining about that instead of the presence of graves on a school property.
    3) The county has handled deceased families on school property in the past without issue. Graham Park Middle School on the east end of the county has a small gravesite next to their loading dock. I'm not 100% on the details, but I have to wonder about whether or not the family would be open to something like this.
    4) Why does the prominence of the family matter? If this were my family, would the reaction from the public be the same? So Fred Lynn was a prominent school board member. I'm a prominent fixture in my dog's life - he thinks I'm the bomb! Would my lack of significance provide such public outcry?

    My heart goes out to the family, I've gone through a similar ordeal with the interment of my own family members. I just want the public to be aware of the fact that we have more to consider than just the movement of family members past and present, famous or not. This is not just a matter of a family being upset because they have relatives buried in what will soon be a butt-kicking new high school, but a matter of the economic feasibility of changing plans that are nearly impossible to change without delaying the opening of a school to reduce the stress load on existing high schools and teachers while giving taxpayers the payoff they should come to expect from one of the top school systems in the nation. There is much more at play here than just the Lynn family.

  • collator posted at 12:46 pm on Fri, Nov 22, 2013.

    collator Posts: 1

    I have a different way of looking at this. I have read of cemeteries being moved before. I am glad that the remains were found as a result of the new school being built. With all the growth in the county, it might have been bulldozed by a developer. Now the family, who had no knowledge before,can be part of the planned relocation of the remains. The county did the right thing in calling in archeologists. I don't think this was mandated, but it was the right thing to do.

  • You Know posted at 9:28 pm on Thu, Nov 21, 2013.

    You Know Posts: 43

    The fact that we have to have an account to read this story shows that the school board doesn't want anyone to know what's happening with this project. Lets all remember these elected officials when their term is up for reelection. Lets not keep this quiet like they are, tell everyone you see about this disrespectful act.

  • jerrycas posted at 8:51 pm on Thu, Nov 21, 2013.

    jerrycas Posts: 1

    Thanks so much leprecaun grandfather was Fred Lynn, for whom the middle school was named. It really is very troubling that no contact was made before they started digging up the graves. No doubt that it is important for the kids of PW County to have a nice high school--but a high school that respects the folks who settled PW County is better than one that doesn't. thanks for your support.

  • leprecaun jon posted at 4:33 pm on Thu, Nov 21, 2013.

    leprecaun jon Posts: 4

    i agree entirely with the lynn family, and am outraged that the county find this 12th school a higher priority than a families rights.....the family should have final say....and those graves should stay where they are...thats sacred and hollowed family roots are deep in this state and county as well and id be pretty leaved if my family was disturbed and disrespected as this family has been....these people are heroes, and history...the foundation of the county and country we live in today.....if anything they should be an example of the honor they have showed and fought for....the county should be ashamed and discussed with its self for even considering to continue to disturb the location..... and push for the schools some respect...

  • Connie Moser posted at 4:17 pm on Thu, Nov 21, 2013.

    Connie Moser Posts: 17

    I'd like to thank Jill Palermo for all her efforts to get this story out to the public, to fairly represent all parties and the undoubtedly endless hours she must have invested.

    As for the content, I am deeply concerned about the lack of transparency throughout this process and hope this serves as a standard to be long remembered.

  • eeheflin posted at 3:49 pm on Thu, Nov 21, 2013.

    eeheflin Posts: 1

    “A graveyard is sacred. You don’t ever disturb it. We were taught that when we were young,” Those are things we were taught. I believe the graves should stay right where they are. What the school board has done is very disrespectful not only for the families but for what everyone was brought up to believe. Leave the deceased alone and let them rest in peace. As for: This is, first and foremost, something that is very badly needed for our students and for our community.” That is a load. It's like them wanting to remove The Pledge of Allegiance from schools. This is something that can be fixed, usually there is always more than one set of plans done up for any type of construction and this would be no different, just like there is usually more than one parcel or piece of property they had looked at before deciding where to place this school at. The family should fight all the way to let there descendants stay where they are at, it is there property and final resting place and has been for a long time.

  • broken_soldier25 posted at 12:09 pm on Thu, Nov 21, 2013.

    broken_soldier25 Posts: 1

    Disgusting, and this article should not be set up so that you have to register to read it. How is a story like this supposed to go National if I can't forward it on to larger News Channels and Papers?

  • B rad culture of violence posted at 10:57 am on Thu, Nov 21, 2013.

    B rad culture of violence Posts: 10

    Culture of violence continues....