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Historic Cemetery Halts Road Project

Guinea Road Cemetery may be eligible for National Register of Historic Places.

As soon as the rest of the human remains are extracted from the site, the Virginia Department of Transportation can proceed with its road-widening project at the intersection of Little River Turnpike and Guinea Road.

But first, archeologists from the Louis Berger Group, Inc., a consulting engineering firm in Richmond, need to remove all of the remains and artifacts that lay within the site of the Guinea Road Cemetery. Andy Williams, of VDOT’s Northern Virginia District Right of Way and Utilities Division, helps relocate cemeteries found within construction zones of VDOT’s road projects. However, Williams said this cemetery has taken his normal operating procedures down another path.

“This is a different one for us,” said Williams. “This one [cemetery] has been declared eligible for inclusion into the National Register of Historic Places.”

Since VDOT normally double-checks for cemeteries thought to exist within its construction sites, Williams said they went ahead with the first step of posting a sign at the location asking for possible descendants to come forward. Following a public notice, VDOT ended up with several respondents claiming to have ancestors buried there. Dennis Howard was one of them, and he’s excited about the recovery of what he said are some of his ancestor’s remains.

“I know all of this not only because it is documented, but because it is oral tradition,” said Howard.

Howard’s family told him stories of their family tree throughout his life. He said Horice Gibson, an emancipated slave who owned the land that is now the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, is his great, great-grandfather. He now believes this cemetery, formerly called the Gibson/Parker Family Cemetery, is where many of his ancestors were buried.

Howard is also in the process of publishing a book which his late cousin had researched for 40 years. Howard said that the book, entitled “Shades of Gray: A Beginning of an African Family in Fairfax County, Virginia,” will include photos taken by his ancestors from the late 19th century. The photos, which he said, depict affluent African-Americans, something he said he wasn’t aware existed.

“I never knew there were free blacks in this time with such affluence,” said Howard.

His book will also contain newspaper clippings, birth records and death records, all kept and maintained by his family throughout the years. He said it should be out by the summer.

“When he [my cousin] died, I felt a responsibility to finish his book,” said Howard. Howard and other descendants have scheduled a ceremonial day for Sept. 30. They will have a morning service at the First Baptist Church in Merrifield, a reinternment at the Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Annandale, and they will end the day with VDOT’s archeological presentation of their findings.

“This makes history inclusive, rather than exclusive,” said Howard.

VDOT CALLED IN the help of the Louis Berger Group after learning that people were claiming to know of the cemetery. VDOT originally hired the archeologists to confirm possible descendants’ claims that it existed, and now they have found about 30 graves total, proving that it did. Notations for a cemetery appeared in the department’s highway plans and in some local maps, and the “old” cemetery is mentioned in an 1851 land deed. According to Brian Conley, an information specialist at the Fairfax County Public Library’s Virginia Room, the reference on the deed only gives a vague idea of the cemetery’s age.

“It could have meant 100 years old or 15 years old,” Conley said. “It depends on the person who’s writing it down.”

The 1851 date on the land deed also matches the only legible artifact found at the site. A VDOT back hoe operator found a piece of stone during Louis Berger Group’s initial investigations of the cemetery in the fall of 2004. Williams said the operator had originally tossed the stone aside and thought nothing of it until the following day. He recovered it from the pile of dirt he had thrown it in, and Williams said he wiped it clean with a rag dipped in some puddle water. It turned out to be an old, hand-carved headstone, that clearly read “1851,” and “S.A. Williams.”

“It energized everybody,” said Williams. “It gave incentive to really keep looking.”

The process from here involves shipping the remains to Radford University, in Radford, Va., so osteologists there can examine them for other evidence. Charles Rinehart, one of the archeologists working on the project for the Louis Berger Group, said the Radford scientists will try to identify the age, gender, and if possible, the race of the remains. The race evidence would be beneficial to back up research by VDOT’s Cultural Resources Team, claiming it was a tenant or slave cemetery from the late 18th or early 19th century.

According to Fairfax County records, Dr. Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institute conducted a survey of this site in June 1991, revealing the presence of six burials, each with fieldstone markers. Rinehart said that now approximately 30 confirmed graves are confirmed, with either fragments of coffin wood or hexagonal outlines being found, all with human remains to go along with them.

Rinehart and the archeologist team discovered another artifact Monday, April 17, similar to the legible one found in 2004.

“We found part of another marked gravestone,” said Rinehart. “We’re not sure which grave it came from.”

There is The gravestone has a capital letter on it, which he said each archeologist reads as a different letter. He also said the stone has an engraved line on it, stylistically similar to the 2004 headstone, meaning it probably comes from the same time period.

The team is temporarily finished with the site, until VDOT contacts them with the date of the proposed road construction. When the construction date nears, Rinehart said the team will then come back to search under the Guinea Road pavement for more remains.

“We’ve found the [cemetery] boundaries to the north, south and west,” said Rinehart. “We need to determine the east.”