The Prince William Board of County Supervisors is expecting an accounting this week of what’s occurred at the Thoroughfare community cemeteries in Broad Run, as an investigation has been opened into the clearing of an old cemetery.
According to advocates for the cemeteries – which the new Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare says house the graves of over 200 freed slaves and Native Americans from as early as the 19th century when the area was settled – development is threatening two of the graveyards, while a third has already been cleared.
Frank and Dulaney Washington, brothers and leaders of the coalition, thanked supervisors Jeanine Lawson of the Brentsville District and Pete Candland of the Gainesville District for their advocacy on behalf of the area’s preservation.
“The remaining voices of the board joined supervisors Lawson and Candland to put Thoroughfare as a priority in getting answers and solutions for the hurt and devastation heaped upon them by the negligence involved in the cemetery desecration and threats to other cemeteries in the community,” Frank Washington said. “Our hope is that the board will put their words into action immediately.”
The coalition had previously been advocating for the preservation of two cemeteries in the area – one the resting place for members of the Washingtons’ extended family and the other with other African Americans and Native Americans from the community. But, with the help of a county archeologist, they recently discovered what they’re saying was a third cemetery on land that was apparently cleared by the neighboring Farm Brewery at Broad Run.
The archeologist, Justin Patton, said he visited the site after hearing that the brewery was clearing land.
At the board meeting on May 4, supervisors offered apologies for what had happened and committed to protecting cemeteries going forward. Owners of the brewery could not be reached for comment.
Previously, the owners had said that they were unaware of the graves at the site and were planting corn there. Candland said Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth is reviewing the case; initially her office said it hadn’t found any “willful intent” to clear graves.
Candland directed county staff to return this week with a presentation on what exactly has happened at the Thoroughfare community’s cemeteries and how similar problems can be prevented in the future. Advocates are also planning a news conference before Tuesday's board meeting.
“Everyone has expressed to me their support for the Thoroughfare community to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Candland said. “Everyone, I think, is understandably upset by this and we do feel bad that this has happened. … Processes have to be changed within Prince William County to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again. … Part of that accountability is showing where the county fell short.”
Dulaney Washington told InsideNoVa that the new attention and commitments from the board have his family feeling more optimistic about the ability to preserve the remaining cemeteries. He also said that the advocates will be working with more archeologists to try to develop a full understanding of all three cemeteries, how old the graves are and who’s been buried there.
“I think everybody is well aware of what’s happening. If they weren’t aware, they certainly are now and I think we might be moving in a positive direction… we’ve got some hope anyway now,” he said.
But, Washington added, the family is waiting to see what the county wants to do about the gravesites that were cleared and how they’ll protect what’s left. Washington and his brother first became concerned when they visited the site and saw that a gate had been erected on the narrow access road and that surveyors were exploring the grave plots.
On May 8, the Washingtons showed Chair Ann Wheeler and Woodbridge Supervisor Margaret Franklin the area, with Wheeler saying that the county and family were searching for a “way forward.”