For Oscar Butt, purchasing a gas station franchise in Alexandria was the American dream. But now his dream is threatened, a threat that could wipe out his investments and leave his wife and four children with an uncertain future.
In 1989, eight years after moving to America, Butt purchased the rights to operate a Mobil gas station from Siddique Chaudhary for $250,000. He agreed to pay some outstanding bills for the business, so his Butt’s investment in the business totaled approximately $300,000, and he now pays a three-month lease to Sunoco — operating the gas station independently. And business is good.
But Butt has a serious problem: His business was built on a cemetery.
In January 1864, Virginia’s military governor ordered that the land at the corner of Church Street and Washington Street be seized from a Confederate sympathizer. In February, the burials started. Alexandria’s former slaves — freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — were buried there.
But their rest would not be peaceful. In 1917, the old cemetery was given to the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, which maintained its own cemetery across the street. In 1946, the cemetery was rezoned for commercial use. Later that year Bishop Peter Ireton sold the tract with the provision that it not be used for an automobile service station.
“It doesn’t make a lick of sense. I never heard of a cemetery being rezoned for commercial use,” said Michael Miller, city historian, noting that the City Council voted unanimously to rezone the land. “Certainly it seems odd that Bishop Ireton would have approved a sale like that.”
In 1955, the gas station was built. Bodies were removed to install underground tanks. Workmen removed bones and skulls from the area on a truck. No one knows where they were taken.
TODAY, BUTT SAYS his business is worth about $500,000. He will lose that money if the city proceeds with its plans to purchase the site from Philadelphia-based Sunoco.
According to a presentation by the Parks and Recreation Commission, the city plans to demolish the gas station early next year.
“This is the land of opportunity, that’s why I came here,” Butt said after a public hearing on the proposal last week. “You don’t have these kinds of freedoms anywhere else.”
But freedom may have its price for Butt. He says that the loss of his business would be devastating to his family. At Thursday’s public hearing, which was held at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center, several of Butt’s customers spoke out in favor of Butt.
“The city is making no effort to compensate him,” said Robert Erikson, one of Butt’s longtime customers. “As a businessman, I think that’s terrible.”
“I think the Freedmen’s Cemetery is a valuable project, but you are going to devastate Oscar and his family if you go through with this,” said Mark Mueller, another longtime customer. “I just ask that you consider Oscar.”
Ruth Bennett traveled from Fairfax County to speak at the public hearing.
“Oscar is very well respected by his customers,” she said. “Can’t there be another spot where that memorial can be put?”
SEVERAL MEMBERS of Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, a nonprofit group that has been promoting the creation of a memorial since 1997, said that the sacred ground of the cemetery should not be overlooked. They said that the bodies buried there must be memorialized, and the presence of the gas station represents a lasting insult to those who were buried there so long ago.
“This is not a movable feast,” said Tim Dennee, a member of the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery. “It was in injustice that the cemetery was placed there, and it would be an injustice if Oscar isn’t compensated by the city. Frankly, two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Butt has worked with the group for years, hosting events at the gas station to memorialize those who are still buried under the asphalt. He was supportive of their efforts in 1997 to place a sign to honor the cemetery. And he is supportive of the effort to put a memorial where the gas station now stands — if he is compensated.
“There are bodies under that asphalt,” said Lillie Finklea, director of Friends of Freedman’s Cemetery. “When that gas station was built, black folks just weren’t relevant. But we’re relevant now.”
Finklea appreciates everything Butt has done for her and her organization over the years, but she insists that the location of the gas station is an injustice that must be fixed.
“The Friends of the Freedman’s Cemetery support Oscar,” she said at the public meeting. “The city must do something to compensate him. He has been wonderful, and it would be wrong for the city to let him lose his investment.”
MARK JINKS, assistant city manager, says that the city has been working with Butt to find alternative locations for his business. City staff identified one parcel of land on Eisenhower Avenue that they say would be an ideal place for a gas station. But the land is currently undeveloped, and an investor would have to purchase the land, build a gas station and then allow Butt to lease and operate it.
“There’s not a single gas station on Eisenhower Avenue,” said Jinks. “The Eisenhower parcel could be a solution to this. We’re sympathetic to Mr. Butts, and we want to do everything in our power to help him.”
The money that the city will use to purchase the land from Sunoco comes from a federal lawsuit in which the city was awarded money for land that was lost when construction began on the new Woodrow Wilson bridge, which will have more then double the span of the current bridge. But Jinks says that money that is administered from the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation comes with a lot of red tape.
“They have very detailed regulations about what happens when you spend their money, and we have to follow the law,” Jinks said. “The official process on this has nor started yet, and to say that we know what the outcome will be is premature at this point.”