A Tribute to Forgotten Souls

Dennis Howard reveals a memorial marker for his ancestors' remains. Below, descendants Ernest Wright, left, Zachia Wimbish, Sabrina Morton and Anneke Collins try to read the inscription on the headstone found at the original site.
Dennis Howard reveals a memorial marker for his ancestors' remains. Below, descendants Ernest Wright, left, Zachia Wimbish, Sabrina Morton and Anneke Collins try to read the inscription on the headstone found at the original site. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Two years after they were on the verge of being paved over for a road-widening project in Fairfax County, the remains of the people of Ilda received an official guarantee yesterday: No one will overlook them again.

In a long-awaited ceremony, three dozen descendants of the families buried in a small and all-but-forgotten African American graveyard in Annandale gathered to commemorate the site at a nearby cemetery where the remains were reinterred last month.

For the descendants and highway workers, genealogists and public officials who assisted them, it was the culmination of a $300,000 state-funded undertaking that began 2 1/2 years ago as the Virginia Department of Transportation was preparing to add a right-turn lane at Little River Turnpike and Guinea Road.

"It's an overwhelming feeling. These people could have been underground [for a] thousand years," said Dennis Howard, a descendant of one of the reinterred families. "Only God could have brought such diverse elements of the community together to make this happen without fighting."

Local lore and some old maps suggested that the area of the widening might have been the site of a tiny graveyard for slaves on the Fitzhugh plantation and for the small community that sprang up there after the Civil War. Called Ilda, the settlement was centered on a blacksmith shop started by two men, Horace Gibson and Moses Parker, at what is now the intersection of Little River Turnpike and Prosperity Avenue -- home to a Pizza Hut.

But other maps and documents showed no such graveyard, and there was no visible trace of anything in the spot, a patch of scrub and trees between Guinea Road and the lawn of a McMansion.

Persistence paid off, as a transportation official, a librarian and archaeologists teamed up to track down descendants and finally determine that there was in fact a graveyard. The proof: the unearthing in 2004 of a headstone, the only one found in a cemetery where most graves were presumably marked only by small rocks.

This spring, transportation workers and archaeologists carefully removed the remains of about three dozen people, half of them children. They were taken to Radford University to be studied for clues about what life was like in Ilda. And in August, the remains were brought to their new home, Pleasant Valley Memorial Park, where they now lie beneath a historical marker, a bed of mums and the recovered headstone.

Yesterday's event was as much family reunion as commemoration. It so happens that Howard, a District social worker living in Springfield, is an avid genealogist who has researched the Gibson family going back to Ilda and has helped keep far-flung descendants in touch with each other. He recently published a lengthy history of the family written by a cousin, another ardent genealogist who died a decade ago.

As a result of the two cousins' labors, the Gibson clan retains a strong family identity. Relatives drove from as far as Norfolk and northern New Jersey for the event.

"I've always thought it's important to have a knowledge of your history, to know where you've come from and what you're about, to be able to go forward," said Renee Morton, who drove from New Jersey with her two teenage children.

At a Merrifield church, family members prayed, sang and took in sermons and readings that included one particularly relevant psalm: "The stone which the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner." With all the pomp of a proper funeral, Fairfax police then led a procession the few miles to Pleasant Valley.

There, the family was joined by the others who had lent a hand along the way. Residents of the house overlooking the old graveyard came to pay their respects, as did a Virginia transportation official. Archaeologist Charles Rinehart came from Michigan to present to the family the findings of the studies on the remains: Researchers determined the sex of all but one of the 18 adults and could tell that "everyone definitely led a hard life of labor, consistent with slaves and former slaves."

More remains are expected to be found when Guinea Road is dug up for the widening next year.

Amid the general good feeling, some family members expressed regret that the graves had to be disturbed at all. But Fairfax Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), who presented a proclamation for the event, said the roadwork could not be avoided.

"You don't have a free right-turn lane there," she said. "It'll help unkink traffic."

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