Friday, November 22, 2013
Current Affairs: Bone Fragments Found at 12th High School Grave Site (InsideNova.com)
The following article (Bone Fragments, Teeth Found at High School Grave Site) is reprinted by permission of InsideNova and the author, Jill Palermo. Many, MANY thanks to both for breaking the story in August 2013 and for their continuing balanced, fair reporting of a volatile and sensitive issue.
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Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 10:31 am | Updated: 10:03 am, Fri Nov 22, 2013.
Author: Jill Palermo
Bitten by what she calls “the genealogy bug” in the 1990s, Carolyn Lynn has spent years tracing her father’s family history, even launching a blog called “Prince William County Genealogy” about two years ago.
But despite her extensive research, Lynn said she hit a wall in her searching long ago. The grave of her great-great grandfather, John Henry Lynn, a Civil War veteran, was missing. And although she found a county notice of his 1884 death, she could find no obituary, and he wasn’t buried beside his wife, Edna Ann, or their daughter, Martha.
“I could never figure out where he was buried,” Lynn said earlier this week. “I’ve been looking for years.”
Lynn’s family mystery was solved this week, but not in a way she ever expected.
Disappointed and angry
The discovery of John Henry Lynn’s likely grave site, as well as those of his parents, William and Cordelia (Keys) Lynn, came as a result of a decision to remove and relocate what is now thought to be a 100-year-old Lynn family cemetery – to make way for a football field for Prince William’s newest high school, set to open in the fall of 2016 near Va. 234 and Hoadly Road.
Although Lynn says she is “elated” about the discovery of her family’s cemetery, the removal of the grave sites has left her and other members of the extended Lynn family -- many of whom still live in the county – disappointed and angry. They want to know why Prince William school officials didn’t do more to accommodate the cemetery or notify area residents about plans to disinter the graves, a process that began on Veterans Day.
“When they were interred, that was their home. They expected to be there forever,” Lynn said of the 11 to 13 Lynn family members – including four small children -- believed to be buried at the site. “Nobody thought somebody would build a football stadium over them.”
Derek Lynn, a Woodbridge resident and family descendant who learned about the grave sites from recent news reports, said he wants the cemetery restored, especially considering his family’s long history and contributions to the county.
According to family research, the Lynn family’s roots in the county date to the 1740s, and ancestors include veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and, more recently, a longtime Prince William School Board member for whom Fred M. Lynn Middle School is named.
“We’re trying to bring this to everyone’s attention,” Derek Lynn said of the decision to move the cemetery. “These [people] spent their whole lives trying to improve the county, and now they’re out there trying to dig them up. … All we want is for the grave sites to be put back the way they were and left alone.”
Phil Kavits, spokesman for Prince William schools, said the cemetery must be moved because it’s near the middle of an area slated for the high school’s football field, which cannot be moved because of wetlands on the 110-acre school site.
Changing the building plans, even if possible, would be expensive and significantly delay the opening of the high school, Kavits added. In response to calls about the cemetery, school officials have posted their reasons for moving the grave sites – and details of the cemetery’s July 2013 discovery – on the school system website.
“There [is] no reasonable alternative given the site and given the constraints we [are] under,” Kavits said in a recent interview. “This is, first and foremost, something that is very badly needed for our students and for our community.”
School system criticized for lack of transparency
Prince William school officials’ decision to move the cemetery has sparked criticism not only from the Lynn family but also from members of the Prince William Historical Commission and local civic associations.
Bill Olson, chairman of the commission’s cemetery committee, said he’s not convinced school building plans couldn’t be shifted to accommodate the cemetery and says the school system did not do enough to notify the community about plans to move the graves.
Although Olson and county historian Justin Patton met with schools officials at the cemetery site on Sept. 3, neither understood that the school system planned to move the graves so quickly, Olson said.
“It seemed to be rather surprising because we thought there would be a general announcement with an opportunity to discuss the specifics of this,” Olson said after a recent commission meeting at which the cemetery was discussed. “Right now, I don’t have any information to know whether this is a ‘last resort.’”
Olson and Patton said state law requires that grave sites only be disturbed as a “last resort” or at the request of family members.
“The Historical Commission generally likes to see cemeteries preserved in place; that’s their preference always,” Patton added. “There should be a compelling reason.”
Similar criticism from local civic associations and other concerned residents led county officials, including Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, and Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, to call for a change in policy requiring that county officials be notified before an application to disinter historic gravesites is submitted to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Nohe, whose district includes the new school site, introduced the measure Tuesday. It will be discussed at the next supervisors’ meeting, Nov. 26.
Sifting the dirt by hand
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources granted Prince William schools permission to move the cemetery late last month. A legal notice of intent to disinter the graves was published in the Washington Post in September, DHR spokesman Randy Jones said.
School officials and Boyd Sipe, lead archeologist with Thunderbird Archeology, the Gainesville-based firm hired to clear the site, say the grave exhumation is being handled with dignity and care.”
Bone fragments and some teeth have been recovered from graves at the site. Any biological materials found are being evaluated by a skeletal biologist at Towson University, Kavits said Wednesday.
“We don’t know what the ability will be for identification” of the remains, Kavits said. “But that will be a major point of their efforts.”
Bits of coffin wood and nails found last week helped archeologists determine that one of children’s graves dates to about the 1840s, Sipe said.
That clue, along with county land deeds and court records, led local historians to identify the cemetery, said Don Wilson, a Virginia librarian at Bull Run Library, home of the county’s main source of genealogy resources, the Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center.
Carolyn Lynn said she’s grateful for the community support for her family’s cemetery and has mixed feelings about the graves. Although she would like for her relatives to rest in peace, she does not want to stand in the way of the new school.
What bothers her most, she said, is that school officials did not try to get in touch with the family earlier. She received an email from a school official on Tuesday and said she hopes to be involved in reinterment plans. She prefers to have her ancestors’ remains stay on the property, but is not particularly hopeful about it.
“We have a right, as family members, to help determine where the remains are moved,” she said. “Do I want them to stay where they are? Absolutely.”
Derek Lynn and his father, Richard Lynn, went to the cemetery uninvited Tuesday morning. They snapped several pictures of the site and had an impromptu meeting with David Cline and Keith Imons, both associate superintendents with Prince William County Schools, who were called to the site after the Lynns arrived.
Richard Lynn said he will fight to keep the grave sites on the property.
“A graveyard is sacred. You don’t ever disturb it. We were taught that when we were young,” Richard Lynn said Wednesday. “What kind of message is this sending to our students? There’s no respect anymore.”