It was a two-story frame house with five rooms, painted white. John Alexander's dad had a carpenter build it, back in 1907 -- or maybe it was 1905. Never mind. His father, mother, brother and he had a nice little farm there, five acres, a few miles west of Triangle.
And when the Depression hit, and all their neighbors moved away to coal mines in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Alexander's parents stayed. They weathered those bad times, and still had the land in 1941 when the government told them they had to sell it.
"Where I was born, now all nice, paved blacktop," Alexander, 87, explained. "We were the last ones right up in that vicinity."
The house became a park -- Prince William Forest Park, to be exact.
Alexander's story is a tiny, five-acre chapter in a much larger book. His parents' land and the land of about 150 other families in the area was bought up in the 1930s and '40s by the federal government under a New Deal program to reclaim depleted farmland -- in this case, land damaged by poor farming practices -- for public use. Much of the land was bought for less than its appraised value. And then the park the government created was racially segregated.
The families in the area included both black and white, and they lived close to the land, subsisting on home-grown food often in addition to working-class incomes. Many had been living there for generations. The land had history. Alexander, for example, said his relatives settled there after being freed from slavery. And after people were forced out, many settled elsewhere in the area.
Today, Alexander and others who were displaced from their homes, along with local ministers and officials, plan to gather in the park to commemorate that lost land and the changes that loss caused in many local lives.
"Right now, we're just trying to get an apology and get people to get the pain out of their hearts," said Pastor John R. Peyton of Reconciliation Community Church in Manassas, one of the organizers of the event.
The day is symbolic: some words, some prayer, some remembrance. More than 20 people who were forced out of their homes have been invited. Sponsored by the Eastern Prince William Ministerial Association, the event will be an acknowledgment of what happened, and perhaps something more. For those displaced, it may be a day of mending.
Behind the National Park Service plan for Prince William Forest Park was a stalwart idealism: the idea that even underprivileged urban children from the District could enjoy nature and outdoor activities in the park, which was initially built as a youth campsite.
But idealism clashed against cultural reality. When construction of most of the camps was nearing completion, planners decided to segregate the 13,000-acre park, with separate entrances for blacks and whites. The National Park Service had no segregating policy, according to its own history of the park, but was in the practice of deferring to local laws.
Lillian Gaskill, a Woodbridge resident who has been independently researching the history of Prince William's black population for 14 years, said the community that once existed on parkland was striking for its racial and ethnic diversity.
"These people were living together peacefully and then things changed as the land was taken," she said.
John Alexander moved to the District in the early '40s and eventually to his current home in Esmont, Va. He remembers the park as segregated, because that's how it was during his early adulthood. But those younger than Alexander, those who have settled here without knowledge of the past, often do not realize this.
"People have never known why they had these two different entrances and they were never connecting," he said. "Now everybody's getting to know why."
But the story is not solely about race. For Harvey Watson, 77, who lives in Triangle, the story is about lost possessions and a lost way of life. He remembers a far different Prince William County -- a place in which families could survive by subsistence-level farming on hardscrabble land, and where mom-and-pop groceries thrived. This was no fast-growing suburbia, choked by town houses and strip malls. Roots were deep.
"Everybody had a little farm, nearly, and everybody lived pretty good, I thought," Watson said. Past wounds are still fresh for him. Watson's family was forced to sell its farm, as well as the farms of both of his grandfathers, he said.
"They took our place," he said. "They gave out $800 and we had a small, 10-acre farm, and we just had to move."
After the displacement, Gaskill said, "some of them were really left with almost nothing, and that's the sad part. Most of them managed to survive."
Peyton said that the group may try to secure some kind of restitution for land lost all those years ago. But for the present, any reconciliation must be purely of the heart.
Perhaps, Gaskill said, the people who return to their land today will not be saddened too much by the past. Perhaps, she said, they will be "uplifted by the fact that somebody cares enough to try to do something."