top of page

In the Spirit of our Ancestors: Saving Sacred Spaces in Thoroughfare Virginia

Two brothers smiling, standing in front of a church.
Brothers Dulaney and Frank Washington on the steps of Oakrum Baptist Church in Thoroughfare, Virginia.

The History of Thoroughfare, Virginia:

Thoroughfare dates back to 1865, when Oakrum Baptist Church was founded by freed slave, Alexandra Johnson. The church served as the pillar of the community - which consisted of Blacks and Native Americans (Pamunkey, Cherokee, and Sioux tribes) living together, harmoniously. The citizens of Thoroughfare echoed the measurements of a successful Black Wallstreet, as they were a self-sustaining community, had thriving businesses and schools, as well as a plethora of necessary resources for a community during its heyday.

The Challenges:

Thoroughfare has had its share of challenges over the past 159 years, but nothing has dealt a more devastating blow to its legacy than the desecration of its cemeteries. The Coalition to Save Thoroughfare has been advocating to protect the cemeteries of Thoroughfare from being desecrated by a local business in recent years. Working alongside allies in Greater Prince William, legislators, and community members, they've fought to stop the bulldozing of a family cemetery containing the remains of over 100 ancestors, and most recently attempted to prevent the desecration of a cemetery where the business created a fire-pit where the ancestors were laid to rest.

Exploring Solutions:

The Coalition currently has a Preliminary Information Form (PIF) on the books with Prince William County, which would protect the land of Thoroughfare and designate it as a historic land. The PIF has been approved by the County and awaits movement to forward the documentation to the state to secure the protections provided by a historical designation.

A common challenge with protecting our historic burial grounds is the modern standards to verify a cemetery and the number of buried ancestors must meet current qualifications, when our history shows that traditional grave markings for our ancestors differs tremendously from today's standards to verify a burial site. Not to mention cemeteries that have already been bulldozed - as is the case in Thoroughfare. Leaving little for ground penetrating radar to register, especially considering the various burial practices used by the citizens of Thoroughfare historically.

Thoroughfare has a continuous documented history traced through powerful oral histories passed down from generation to generation, which has been verified through research and history by Prince William County Government. Yet, the struggle to protect the sacred spaces in Thoroughfare remain.

Support from Senator Roem:

We reached out to Senator Danica Roem, to take a deeper dive into the support The Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare has received at the state level, and here is her response:

"For each of the last three years (2022, 2023 and 2024), I've introduced legislation meant to ensure my Thoroughfare constituents and Virginians throughout the commonwealth have the right to be buried next to their families in cemeteries located on private property, with HB 610 (2022), HB 2011 (2023) and SB 281 (2024). While it took much perseverance to finally pass this legislation in 2024, I don't feel as if the 2022 and 2023 efforts were wasted just because HB 610 and HB 2011 didn't pass as each year informed what we did in the following year to address concerns from members of the Virginia House of Delegates. The bill we passed this year I believe is the most robust, strongest bill to date and I would certainly hope the Governor of Virginia would sign it into law by April 8th as it received unanimous support in the Senate and nearly two-thirds support in the House of Delegates.

Following the heartbreaking clearing of the Scott cemetery and restricted access given to my constituents elsewhere in 2021, I worked with Frank Washington and the Virginia Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare as well as with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on three successful bills we've now passed through the Virginia General Assembly, starting with HB 615 and HB 961 in 2022.

HB 615 ensured localities now make good faith attempts to contact the surviving family members of those buried in cemeteries located on public property prior to the sale of that property to a private buyer in order to give that family a chance to purchase the land if they wish. HB 961 required localities to include in printed public notices that a cemetery is located on applicable property up for public sale.

Both of those bills tackle a common issue with former heirs' properties, which heavily affect Black and Native communities in Virginia where there often were not proper written documents conveying the transfer of ownership from one generation to the next.

While both of those bills passed in the first year we introduced them, it took a Herculean effort involving many amendments and changes throughout the last three session to get the other bill for interment rights in a posture to finally pass. We were so close last year after the bill passed through two different committees (House General Laws Committee and the House Courts of Justice Committee) only to be killed on the House floor on crossover day itself when the House had to complete work on its bills and the Senate had to complete work on its bills on a party-line vote due to a last-minute, unspecified problem with no prior notice to me as the patron before I stepped foot in the House chamber that day. I was absolutely livid over how this bill was treated and I vowed to Frank that this would be the first bill I filed in 2024 as a member of the Senate of Virginia.

I kept my word to Frank and I kept my Senate campaign promise to my constituents as a whole to continue working in a constructive manner to pass legislation just like I did in the House when 41 of my bills were signed into law during my three terms representing the 13th District as a state delegate.

Now, we're just waiting on Governor Youngkin and I hope he'll do the right thing by signing SB 281 into law."

Hope for Tomorrow:

The Coalition is not only fighting for their history; they are fighting for their future!

"Generational wealth is not just about finances, but in our history. It is in what we can share with our youth and what we can share about this collective history that incorporates all of America." - Frank Washington


bottom of page