Copy of Page 10 Thoroughfare prayer (1).jpg

Supporters and descendants of the Thoroughfare community pause in silent prayer at the potter's field after laying a wreath at the grave of World War I veteran Moses Johnson in December 2021.

A descendant tied to one of the cemeteries in the Thoroughfare community of Broad Run is suing a brewery and Prince William County for failing to protect the historic burials.

Frank Washington, whose family is buried in one of the cemeteries, filed the lawsuit in Prince William County Circuit Court in August against the county, the Board of County Supervisors, interim County Executive Elijah Johnson and International Investments LLC.

The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop any groundwork on the property and authorize Washington and the county to conduct archaeological studies to identify the borders of the cemetery. It seeks to transfer ownership of the cemetery from the Farm Brewery at Broad Run to Washington and provide unspecified damages.

The saga over the cemeteries near 16117 John Marshall Highway technically stretches back to 1970, when the property’s first owner, James Scott, died without a will. 

Tax payments on the land stopped in 1994, according to the county. The county started foreclosure proceedings in 2017 and brought the property to auction in 2020 after a search and notification process of descendants.

Washington’s lawsuit says neither he nor any members of the Scott family “received any property tax bills, notice of delinquencies, or notice of a tax lien” related to the property and were never provided notice of the tax auction.

The lawsuit also cites state code that prohibits the levy of taxes on cemeteries, arguing that the property should never have reached foreclosure.

The lawsuit says the cemetery was marked as a historical landmark as early as 1874. 

“It, along with the Fletcher-Allen and Peyton cemeteries are integral parts of the historic Thoroughfare area of Prince William County and are deeply important to the descendants of the multiple families who can trace their lineage back thereto,” the suit states.

However, while the area was listed on the county’s cemetery survey, no indication of the Scott Cemetery was included in the sale. 

The land was sold to International Investments LLC, which is registered to Michelle DeWitt. She is one of the owners of the Farm Brewery at Broad Run.

The issues grew in 2021 when brothers Frank and Dulany Washington – whose ancestors were among the earliest residents of the Thoroughfare – were preparing to bury their aunt, another longtime resident, in one of the two cemeteries at the property. 

The Washingtons and other advocates started lobbying the county to protect the cemeteries because the brewery was clearing land on or near the two cemetery sites.

Advocates said the cemeteries are home to the graves of more than 200 freed slaves and Native Americans from as early as the 19th century. 

The Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare has said a third cemetery was found on land cleared by the brewery. The Dewitts have said they were unaware of any graves at the site, which were largely unmarked, and were planting corn.

The county cited the company for not obtaining a permit before starting to clear land.

The brewery owners have promised to return the cemetery to the state it was before their work.

Washington contends the initial purpose of the work was to construct a performance stage. He said the brewery changed its plans to skirt requirements from the county’s citations.

The Board of County Supervisors eventually approved a $300,000 agreement with W.M. Tinder Inc. to buy two acres containing the cemeteries last year. 

The board also earmarked a $3.6 million package of initiatives aimed at better identifying and studying historic cemeteries, conducting archeological surveys of the Thoroughfare area and doing more to tell the story of historic Black settlements in the area like the Thoroughfare and the Carver Road settlements. 

Despite the actions taken by the board last year, the lawsuit contends that the brewery has continued to clear areas of the cemetery and plans to construct a corn maze on top of the land. It alleges that heavy machinery has conducted operations in at least March and June this year.

The lawsuit excoriates the county for its “deliberate and egregious actions” in failing to protect the cemetery and allowing its “eventual desecration.” It says the county’s “neglect and dereliction of duty” allowed a foreclosure and “unlawful tax sale.”

The lawsuit says the family is still being barred from accessing the cemetery.

“Defendants’ actions (and inaction) in this matter are all the more egregious when the racial history of the area and the historical treatment of African American freed slaves and Native Americans therein are taken into account,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants’ actions (and inaction) echo the morally repugnant yet once-common belief that these people were insignificant and without worth.”

A hearing was scheduled for Oct. 28, but was canceled. No further hearings have been scheduled in the case.

 

Nolan Stout covers Prince William County. Reach him at nstout@insidenova.com or @TheNolanStout on Facebook and Twitter.

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(7) comments

Casey Avatar

I get both arguments but typical PWC (like most counties in the metro area) don't really give two shakes because its all about the taxes & money. I wonder if people knew they were standing on peooles graves while drinking beer at a fire pit? Just wait till they start digging up graves on Pageland Road when they move all that dirt around. Sorry about your bad luck on your final resting place.

Alexander Gutierrez

just move the graves to a museum or something.

Potato Head

"Tax payments on the land stopped in 1994, according to the county. The county started foreclosure proceedings in 2017".

Was the County searching for the owners and decedents for over 20 years and no one claimed the property?

Elena Schlossberg

The first time the Cemetery was desecrated the Dewitts said they did not seek a clearing permit because they were only creating an area to "plant sunflowers and corn." It is a felony to knowingly violate a cemetery. What was their excuse the next time, or the next time, and so on and so on.

The leadership in this county has allowed this documented burial site to be desecrated numerous times. And each time they do nothing. SHAME on them.

Now when you drive by there appears to be a fire pit on top of this hallowed ground. The disrespect is truly unfathomable. Frank Washington has approached this atrocity with nothing but integrity and a deep sense of justice, all motivated by his strong faith.

Harry Morant

The family didn't seem to care enough about the cemetery to maintain it in a state which clearly showed it was a cemetery. But now an avenue to sue and financially gain is on the table, all holds are barred! The "victim" card is thrown!

Bill Wright

Note that the article states:

• “while the area was listed on the county’s cemetery survey, no indication of the Scott Cemetery was included in the sale.”

• “The Washingtons and other advocates started lobbying the county to protect the cemeteries because the brewery was clearing land on or near the two cemetery sites.”

• “The county cited the company for not obtaining a permit before starting to clear land.”

• “The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop any groundwork on the property and authorize Washington and the county to conduct archaeological studies to identify the borders of the cemetery.”

You shouldn’t presume, without evidence, that the litigants were disinterested in the cemetery and are just trying to take financial advantage of the situation. That’s quite a leap considering their efforts to prevent the damage from occurring.

When trying to presume someone else’s motives, the best thing to do is put yourself in their situation. How would you feel if the county and a private business knowingly desecrated your family cemetery despite your protestations beforehand? Since those protestations were obviously ineffective, what action would you take to remedy the situation?

Your comment suggesting descendants “didn't seem to care enough about the cemetery to maintain it in a state which clearly showed it was a cemetery” is uninformed. Early African American and Native American cemeteries did not have the headstones and grave markers we associate with modern cemeteries, so you are using an inappropriate standard.

It seems to me Mr. Washington is only seeking to achieve through his lawsuit what he was unable to achieve through reasonable negotiation. Unfortunately, that is how lawsuits come about.

Dick Grayson

Unspecified damages says it all, also the race angle at the end! Not ambulance chasers but hearse chasers. So don’t pay tax, get foreclosed and now you want $$?! Welcome to 2022

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