As it turns out, the 110-acre site slated for Prince William County’s 12th high school can accommodate a small family cemetery after all – or at least what’s left of it.
During a special meeting Monday night, the Prince William County School Board was presented with three proposals for reinterring the remains of 11 grave sites school officials said had to be exhumed and relocated to make way for a football stadium for the yet-to-be-built high school, set to open in the fall of 2016 near the intersection of Va. 234 and Hoadly Road.
Two of the options would return the recovered contents of the cemetery – now believed to belong to the Lynn family, whose Independent Hill-area roots date back to the 1760s – to the high school site, either at their original burial site or a nearby location on the western fringe of the property near Independence Drive.
The third option would be to stick with the school division’s original plan, which was to relocate the remains to Stonewall Memory Gardens, a public cemetery near Manassas National Battlefield Park.
The school board took no vote on the matter Monday, but a decision could come as early as Wednesday, according to schools spokesman Phil Kavits.
That’s when the school board will hold its last meeting of the year and is expected to vote on whether the new school will include an $8.4 million aquatics center, which had been the main source of controversy about the new school until news broke on Veterans Day that work had begun to excavate the historic cemetery.
Although school officials had acquired the necessary state permit to disinter the cemetery, the digging caught many by surprise and angered some community members who argued that school officials should rework the site to accommodate the cemetery, which, at that point, had yet to be identified.
The disinterment sparked a firestorm of criticism as well as several news reports, many of which featured unsettling photos, some taken by Lynn family members, of archeologists clad in protective white bio-hazard suits standing amid hollowed gravesites loosely covered in plywood.
Members of the Prince William County Historical Commission were among the first to cry foul, saying they were not told about the excavation or given an opportunity to enlist the help of local historians to identify the burial site prior to its disturbance. Members of various community groups also complained and called on county and state elected officials to halt the digging until family members could be identified and consulted.
State delegates Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st, and Rich Anderson, R-51st, responded by sending a letter to county school officials urging them to invite community input. Two members of the county Board of Supervisors – Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, and Marty Nohe, R-Coles -- also chimed in, calling for a change in county policy regarding historic cemeteries.
Amid those events, local historians Don Wilson, head of the Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center at Bull Run Library, and Charlotte Cain, a historian and RELIC volunteer, finally zeroed in on the likely occupants of the grave sites based on land records and approximate dating of some of the first items removed in the excavation, including coffin features and hardware common as early as 1850. The Lynn family owned the property on which the cemetery was discovered from about the 1840s to the 1890s.
Once the identification was made public, members of the Lynn family came forward to lodge their own complaints. Several traveled to the excavation site to snap pictures and demand answers from Thunderbird Archeology, the Gainesville firm hired to disinter the graves, as well as county school officials officials.
Monday’s meeting, although required by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, also offered family members an opportunity to voice their preference for reinterring the remains, which included teeth, bone fragments, buttons, coffin pieces, vulcanite “mourning” rings likely worn by the deceased and a small metal plaque engraved with the words “At rest.”
School Board Chairman Milt Johns (At Large) acknowledged the episode had been emotional and difficult for members of the Lynn family and told them, “We are here to listen to you.”
Boyd Sipe, Thunderbird’s principal archeologist, began the meeting with a full report of what was removed from the grave site as well as news that biological remains, which were transferred to Towson University, are likely too degraded to allow DNA testing to confirm a connection to the Lynn family.
Still, Sipe said, the date of the burials and the archival evidence – census records, genealogical data and Cordelia Lynn’s recently discovered 1899 obituary – provide “very strong but circumstantial evidence” the cemetery did indeed belong to Cordelia and her husband William, who died in 1862.
About 100 people attended the meeting, including several descendants of William and Cordelia Lynn who still live in the Washington area.
County schools Associate Superintendent David Cline explained that while the remains could be returned to the original burial site, doing so could cost millions because the campus would need to be redesigned and re-bid to area contractors.
Wetlands that cut through the site would make a re-design even more costly and difficult, Cline said, because shifting the football field would require adding a second concession stand, restroom and press box – all of which are now centrally located between the boys’ and girls’ playing fields, as required by Title IX.
Some of those details had already been explained to Lynn family members, who met privately with school officials last week.
Carolyn Lynn, a Manassas resident and great-great-great-granddaughter of William and Cordelia Lynn, said she understood the difficulty of returning her relatives to their original resting places but urged the school board to “make it right” by re-burying them on the land that once was their homestead.
“I would like to request that they be put back on their original property. It’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Jerry Casagrande, a Lynn family descendant who now lives in Alexandria, urged school officials to look upon the grave site not as an obstacle but as a resource for teaching students about the 19th century Lynn family, members of whom farmed the land and fought in the Civil War, but also likely owned slaves.
“Teachable moments for the history teachers, the social studies teachers, are great,” Casagrande said. “Embrace the gravesite, don’t begrudgingly stick it in the corner of your school site.”
Dick Lynn, of Occoquan, did not speak at Monday’s meeting but shared his sentiments after it concluded, saying he agreed his family members should be returned to their land.
“They’ve already destroyed the site itself,” Dick Lynn added. “But leave them on their property, their farm.”