December 6, 2013

At a time when historic sites around the country are threatened by sprawl, Prince William County is usually a defender. Best known for the Civil War conflicts at Manassas, the county also hosted George Washington’s army as it marched through Dumfries and, earlier still, was home to the Doeg Indians. For the most part, the county has succeeded in protecting significant historic land, buildings and burial sites from development and destruction.

History is more than battlefields and buildings, however; it is also individuals living ordinary lives, contributing in little ways to the greater good. In Prince William, some of those people bore the surname Lynn, which has been a part of the county’s history and culture since 1740. The Lynns have been farmers, shopkeepers, craftsmen, ministers and educators, and they have served in nearly every significant military conflict our country has faced, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. Henry Fairfax Lynn was the first president of the National Bank of Manassas, and Fred M. Lynn, a member of the county school board for 37 years, had a middle school named in his honor.

For several weeks, however, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and the county school board have shown that their dedication to historic preservation is highly selective.

In late August, the Web site InsideNoVA reported that a number of graves were discovered at a construction site for a 12th county high school. The school district, which owns the land in the Coles District of the county, quickly determined that the graves had to be moved because they stood in the way of a planned athletic field, and it pressed ahead without determining who was buried at the site.

A small notice seeking public comment on the graves was published on Sept. 9 in The Post, and neighbors and community members who might have an interest in the site were not contacted; not surprisingly, no one knew to step forward with concerns or objections. So, finding “no apparent public interest,” the district filed for a permit with the state Department of Historic Resources to disinter the graves. Excavation began on Nov. 8.

A day later, after a diligent search of land and other records by staff at the Bull Run Regional Library, researchers working with the school district determined that the land, and almost certainly the graves, belonged to William and Cordelia (Keys) Lynn and their children. The cemetery now had an identity and, more important, it probably has living descendants. Family. My family.

I learned this news through the local media, not the school district. Only when Lynn descendants started appearing on the site and demanding answers did school officials begin a dialogue. But that didn’t stop the digging. Disinterment of the 11 graves was completed Nov. 21.

On its Web site, the school district claims that it did everything possible to notify the community of its plans, to determine the identity of the remains and to be accessible for public discussion before removing the cemetery. To me, though, it appears that it followed the letter of the law in as minimal a manner as possible. In less than two weeks, a 100-plus-year-old cemetery was swept away.

It’s too late for my family to recover the part of our history that was destroyed, but something must be done to ensure that this does not happen again in Virginia. There must be a healthy balance between the imperatives of historic preservation and development. We need clear steps, written in law, requiring that every effort be made to identify such cemeteries, locate living relatives and include them in any plans for removal and to notify interested parties, via multiple venues, over a reasonable period of time.

Today, I am ashamed of Prince William County, whose leaders were so quick to turn their backs on their own past. What a lesson to teach our children. Apparently, history, respect and the sanctity of a final resting place mean nothing when you can have a brand new football field instead.

Carolyn G. Lynn is the author of the blog Prince William County Genealogy.

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