Cashing Out Their History
Sunday, May 15, 2005
An acre of land in Gainesville wasn't worth much in 1865.
It was worth so little, in fact, that white landowners were willing to rent it to freed slaves who had traveled there in search of land. In a flurry of sales during the 1880s, many of the former slaves bought property for $10 an acre or even less.
They called the land, which lies roughly along Routes 29 and 15, the Settlement. It became one of Northern Virginia's most significant, and most stable, black communities.
The original settlers believed land was power. They held on to it tightly, parting with bits only when they were desperate for cash. They educated their children on the value of a dollar and the greater value of land.
But time and circumstance have altered those lessons.
Pursued by developers offering as much as $300,000 an acre, dozens of families -- many of them descendants of those original pioneers -- are opting to sell their property, and a part of Prince William County's African American history is being transformed into hundreds of luxury houses.
For the sellers, there are regrets, but there is also a conviction that they are being true to their ancestors' original purpose: to provide economic security for their families.
The founders "probably wouldn't be very happy that the land was being sold and great big houses were going on it," said Maxine Thomas, 74, a descendant of an original resident whose family has 15 acres under contract with a $4.5 million price tag.
"What would I tell them? Well, I would just tell them that we have to move on," she said. "We can't hold on to it forever."
Old Homes for New
The land deals that have conveyed more than 160 of the 383 acres of the original Settlement mark the community's death, but residents said its history had already faded. The Shady Inn dance hall, a hot spot that drew people from miles away, is now a small, quiet church. The general store is gone. Many descendants have moved away. They turned the old homes into summer getaways, then stopped visiting altogether.
Still, it wasn't easy to persuade some of the landowners to let go, even for big bucks, said Carmen Amaya, a real estate agent who pulled together a pending deal for Equity Homes to buy 30 acres from seven families. Fifty to 70 houses will be squeezed onto the land, she said. Another development already underway will include 233 houses.
Amaya said she had to do a lot of talking and, in some cases, begging.