Paving Over the Dead

The busy intersection of Guinea Road and Little River Turnpike in Fairfax County, Va.—less than 20 miles from Washington, D.C.—bears little resemblance to a historic site. No manors, plaques, or guided tours mark this nondescript suburban corner, just the letter "G" painted on the sidewalk and several tiny orange flags in the dirt. Beneath the sidewalk, however, are at least two rows of grave shafts most likely containing the remains of African Americans (hence the letter "G" for graves)—29 burials in all, some antedating the Civil War.

When Guinea Road was widened in the 1960s to accommodate the spread of suburbia, this nameless, largely forgotten burial ground was partially paved over. Local oral tradition spoke of the site, but only last November did archaeologists working for Virginia's highway department finally confirm its existence. They uncovered coffin wood, cut coffin nails, and a headstone inscribed with the date 1851. Now, with growth accelerating in the region—northern Virginia is among the fastest-growing suburban regions in America—the burials are threatened once more, with Virginia's Department of Transportation hoping to widen Guinea Road a second time, from three to four lanes; up to 15 feet of additional roadway would consume the sidewalk.

Virginia officials have been careful, however, not to show disrespect for the dead. They have recommended that the grounds be considered historic, which would require archaeological analysis before the remains can be re-interred. They have also sought out the descendants of those believed to be buried there, including Dennis Howard, a District of Columbia social worker. Howard has aggressively lobbied the state of Virginia to ceremoniously bury the remains elsewhere and to commemorate the original site with a plaque.

Not long ago, the state would have probably hired a funeral director only to unearth the bodies and bury them someplace else. In the 20th century, many burial grounds across the country succumbed to highways and sprawl. African American gravesites were particularly vulnerable, according to archaeologist Michael Trinkley, the director of the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina-based organization dedicated to cemetery preservation. He mentions a black cemetery in Petersburg, Va., that was paved over several times in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s to widen U.S. Route 1, while the white cemetery across the highway remained untouched.

"The burials were taken up and placed elsewhere," Trinkley says. "The problem is, no good records were maintained on many of the people who were buried there and where they were put."

Officials have scheduled the Guinea Road widening for 2006, but the date is likely to be pushed back so that the site can be further studied. "We're going to do this entire project in consultation with all the involved parties," says Kerri S. Barile, preservation program coordinator for Virginia's Department of Transportation. "It's a very intriguing case. There are a lot of unknowns to consider. We still have a lot of work to do."

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