When Dennis Howard’s eighth grade teacher told him to trace his family tree back to England, he knew the integration of his school in 1964 Virginia hadn’t truly begun.
Howard, an African-American, never did trace his family to England because he simply couldn’t. He did, however, ask his oldest living relatives at the time to tell him what they knew about the family lineage. That oral tradition is how Howard was able to complete his eighth-grade assignment, just a little past deadline.
“It took me 40 years to complete, but I did complete it,” said Howard of Springfield. “I never forgot the challenge.”
Howard gathered with family and friends for an all-day celebration and reinterment ceremony of the Gibson-Parker family, Saturday, Sept. 30, at the First Baptist Church of Merrifield, the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park and Northern Virginia Community College. The family believes its ancestors were among the human remains found in an old, unmarked cemetery at the intersection of Guinea Road and the Little River Turnpike in Annandale. When the Virginia Department of Transportation began a road-widening project at the intersection early this year, they discovered artifacts and human remains indicative of a 19th century cemetery. They brought in archeologists to research and extract the findings from the ground. In the end, the remains from at least 33 people were found, among many artifacts from the early to mid 19th century. The only tombstone found clearly read the name “S.A. Williams,” and the year, “1851.”
“Unfortunately, we haven’t found anything [evidence] from the Gibson-Parker families,” said Charles Rinehart, an archeologist for the Louis Berger Group, Inc.
But descendants of the family are sure their ancestors were among the 33 found. Through oral tradition, Howard knows his great-great-grandfather, Horice Gibson, was an emancipated slave living in an area known as the Ilda Community. Members of that community are believed to be among those in the cemetery. Rinehart said only six of the 33 remains found were of African-American descent, and no evidence has been specifically linked to the Gibson-Parker family, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, he said.
“Given the time frame and their family [oral] traditions, it’s possible,” said Rinehart.
Howard believes the nature of the cemetery, unmarked and virtually forgotten, is also indicative of the black slave community. He recently passed along everything he knows of his family’s oral tradition to the authors of a book about the history of what is today’s Braddock District, called “Braddock’s True Gold.” The book was released earlier this year, and Howard’s remembrance of his ancestors and the Ilda Community are recorded in the book. He also completed a book his late cousin had begun writing, called “Shades of Grey: A Beginning … The Origin and Development of a Black Family in Fairfax, Virginia,” which is a written account of the Gibson-Parker family’s oral histories.
“He’s a very interesting man, who tells great stories,” said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), who led the Braddock book project and helped record several oral histories from people in Fairfax County. “I just think he’s incredible.”
THE DAY OF celebration meant the world to Howard and his family. They believe their relatives had been put in a grave and forgotten, and the reinterment of their remains at the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park provided a long-overdue memorial service for their ancestors.
“These people laid in the ground for 100 years with no one to remember them, and now they’re going to be remembered,” said Mary Lipsey, one of the four authors of “Braddock’s True Gold.”
For Rinehart, it’s exciting to see his research “come full-circle.” He remembers only one other time where descendants of a family whose remains he had found were around to claim them and give a memorial service. In that case, it was a Native American tribe who did not allow non-tribe members into the ceremony.
“This is a nice family, very welcoming,” said Rinehart.
It is unknown how old the Guinea Road cemetery was. An 1851 land deed references it as the “old cemetery,” which could mean anything from 15 years to hundreds of years old. Regardless of its age, the people buried there were able to receive a 21st century memorial service Saturday, attended by more than 50 people.
“For us, it’s just an honor to be a part of it,” said Hazel “Ernie” Baker, family services coordinator at Pleasant Valley Memorial Park.
For Howard, a song by Aaron Neville and Lou Ross called “When God Gets Ready, You Got to Move,” comes to mind when he thinks of his ancestors.
“To me, God got ready for these people to get out from underneath the ground,” said Howard. “God got tired of the manner in which they were being treated.”