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In Virginia, a historic Black neighborhood grapples with whether to grow

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Amid the luxury homes, townhouses and shopping centers that dominate western Prince William County, what's left of The Settlement neighborhood – built by formerly enslaved African Americans in Virginia – is easy to miss.

The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, founded in 1877 on the site of a former plantation, is still there, next to a graveyard marked with tilting headstones. But the building that was a lasting center of community life has been unusable since an arsonist torched it in 2012.

Nearby on a busy stretch of Lee Highway, a rotting structure with a vine-choked roof marks where the Shady Inn Dance Hall once lit up the night from the 1940s to the '60s – drawing the likes of James Brown to perform where Civil War battles had been fought.

And along the surrounding leafy country roads, 50 miles west of Washington, some aging descendants of the original settlers live in their wood-paneled homes, nestled among 692 acres of pine forest and farmland that was once among the few places African Americans were allowed to live under Jim Crow laws.

That history is driving a fight over how much new development should be allowed in The Settlement – pitting those who want to preserve a legacy of the Reconstruction era in Prince William against officials pushing for more affordable housing in the steadily growing county of 470,000 residents.

Some Black property owners in the area say a proposal to dramatically scale down new development allowed there would deprive them of the generational wealth that has long eluded African Americans – an argument that has resonated with the Board of County Supervisors' four Black members.

"I have three daughters, I have five grandkids and I want the best for them," James Jackson, whose family has owned 15 acres in The Settlement for 101 years, recently told the board. "For the last 22 years or so, we've been trying to sell that property. We pay taxes on it, basically throwing away money because the land is just sitting there."

'We can't hold on to it forever'

Such tensions have long existed in this portion of Prince William County that white families once considered undesirable.

The Settlement started in 1887 with Sally Grayson, who became the area's first known African American landowner after she bought 7 acres in what is now Gainesville from the son of a former plantation owner, according to a history of land records and local family stories compiled by the county. Other Black settlers followed, forming an insular community that coexisted with Thoroughfare, another Reconstruction-era enclave now surrounded by new development.

The Baptist church was The Settlement's hub, filled with music during day-long Sunday services that melted into cookouts. The Shady Inn and other businesses, including a bus charter service that offered rides to Atlantic City, were the seeds of Black entrepreneurship in the area.

"It was a community where everyone helped everyone," said Janet Robinson, 64, whose family has owned property in the area for four generations. "Everybody knew everybody and everybody knew we were safe, at least within these boundaries."

But those boundaries began to blur as families left to chase their fortunes elsewhere. Others held on to their land, then lost the property in county tax sales after falling behind on their payments, county officials said.

The erosion quickened during the early 1990s, when Walt Disney Co. announced plans to build a 3,000-acre history-themed park in the area, prompting a wave of land speculation.

Disney abandoned the "Disney's America" idea – which included plans to recreate a Civil War-era village – in the face of heated opposition from residents in the nearby town of Haymarket, who were worried about traffic congestion.

But the development continued as families arrived from Washington's inner suburbs in search of cheaper homes and more space.

By 2000, the county's population had jumped by 188,000 in a decade. With white homeowners moving in, Black residents made up only two-thirds of The Settlement, according to county officials. Those who stayed resisted an idea to convert the area into an African American heritage park, arguing that it would stifle their property values.

Then, in 2005, plans to build the 259-home Hopewells Landing community on a large swath of the original neighborhood convinced many of those residents to sell. The Settlement crossed a point of no return.

"We can't hold on to it forever," one 74-year-old resident, Maxine Thomas, told The Washington Post at the time, after her family sold its 15 acres for $4.5 million.

'A narrative we're not trying to write'

Then came the church fire in 2012 and the community's core was suddenly empty.

The fire caused $1.2 million in damage. The church's 130 members – many of whom live elsewhere – have raised what they could through online fundraising and frequent yard sales.

But much remains to be done to restore the still-gutted building, despite a recent listing in the National Register of Historic Places and some help from the county.

Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, a slow-growth advocate elected to represent that portion of the county in 2014, has championed efforts to keep the rest of The Settlement intact.

In 2017, Lawson helped defeat a plan by the Dominion utility company to erect transmission lines through Settlement properties, an effort to accommodate the continuing growth that includes plans for data centers. Dominion later agreed to run its lines below Interstate 66.

Since then, Lawson, who is White, has worked with local residents and property owners to create a plan that would reduce what is allowed to be built there.

Currently, the county allows farming, low-to-medium density residential communities of as many as six homes per acre, and some commercial and industrial development. The rural roads running through the neighborhood are two lanes, but the county permits them to be widened to four.

Lawson said she has been approached by several developers over the years who've wanted to build townhouses or condominium developments, which many of the descendants of the original settlers adamantly oppose.

"They don't want higher density and I want to honor that," she said.

The proposal Lawson sponsored last month would create a network of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in The Settlement that would lower the amount of density allowed and label the area with historic markers.

Under that plan, most of the area would be limited to many fewer houses per acre – from as little as one house every two acres, to four homes per acre. Pockets of higher-density neighborhoods would be allowed in the northern and southern tips of The Settlement off Lee Highway, where mixed-use commercial and residential buildings would also exist.

Meanwhile, the two-lane rural roads would be kept that way.

But other property owners – among them real estate investors who've owned their land for decades – say that, in a county where many lower-income families are sharing single-family homes, it is time to open the area to new development.

"Ninety-five percent of that property is no longer in the original Settlement's hands," said Neil Zarou, who is white and for 35 years has owned five undeveloped parcels in the area, one of which is allowed to contain townhouses. "There is a shortage of housing in Prince William County."

Patricia Limage, who is also White, said she hopes she and her husband can sell the horse ranch they've owned in the area for three decades to fund their retirement.

"All of our money is in this piece of property, basically," said Limage, 75. "If we can't leave, we have nothing but a burden to leave my daughter when we die."

Ernest Lightfoot, who is Black, said his mother and sister intend to stay in the neighborhood their family moved to in 1969.

He believes a historical designation now would hurt some property owners on smaller lots like theirs while allowing wealthier families to continue to move to larger lots.

"It still can be a community, but we need to make sure that the property values are appreciating instead of depreciating," Lightfoot said.

Those arguments swayed the five Democrats on the eight-member county board, who in a party-line vote late last month sent Lawson's plan back for revisions that would include higher density.

Supervisor Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, who pushed for that decision, said he was particularly moved by the arguments about generational wealth.

With a racial wealth gap in the country that has only widened over time, for a local governing body to effectively lower the value of someone's land by setting new limits on development "just goes to that whole narrative of Black people losing in the end and that's a narrative we're not trying to write here," Angry said.

Deepening frustrations

Yet that is how some Settlement property owners who supported Lawson's plan see it.

Their frustrations deepened after two 19th-century family burial sites in Thoroughfare that are still in use were disturbed by development.

In one case, the owners of a farm brewery that opened in 2019 cleared land believed to hold as many as 100 century-old African American graves to make way for a sunflower field, according to county officials who investigated that incident.

The owners of the Farm Brewery at Broad Run did not return messages seeking comment. But county officials said the owners didn't realize the gravesite was there, blaming the incident on a lack of communication from a county department that has catalogued where such family cemeteries exist.

In the second incident, developer Jason Doucette's company excavated land where it plans to build five single-family homes on property that sits a few feet away from another burial site that holds Black and Native American graves.

Doucette declined to comment, but Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, said the county is working with the developer to make sure the gravesites aren't further disturbed.

Joyce Hudson, who heads an alliance of Settlement property owners who want to limit new development, said it's likely that there are undetected family burial sites in the rural parts of that area.

Hudson, who is Black and uses the home she bought in 1969 as a rental property, said the site should be afforded the same honor as a Civil War battlefield.

"If this were the Manassas battlefield, you wouldn't go developing in that area," she said. "People know the history there, they know that people were buried there. The only difference is that's more widely known because, in a lot of cases, of the color of their skin."

Looking ahead

County supervisors agree that some kind of effort to formally recognize the area's role in African American history will occur, which several said should have happened decades ago.

After the graveyard incidents in Thoroughfare, the county board approved that area as a historic overlay district, which places extra restrictions on new development.

The county is also conducting a survey aimed at preserving other historically significant African American sites.

Lawson said she'd like the plan for The Settlement to include a reproduction of one of the original settler's homes and, perhaps, a street named after Sally Grayson.

But, she said, she's unsure how the board can reach a compromise on density that will make all sides happy.

"I don't think some of my colleagues really understand the end game with some of these landowners," Lawson said. "They're land speculators and I'm not going to plan and rezone according to their investment plan."

Lawson admits that the time for saving The Settlement may have long since passed.

"Yeah, the horse left the barn a long time ago – but let's put some reins on this horse," she said.


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