Thoroughfare, Virginia: A Tight-Knit Black Community That Withstood Becoming A Theme Park Attraction
Yes, you read that headline correctly.
Our pain was almost put on display, in a historical space where we should be celebrated.
Thoroughfare, Virginia was once a thriving Black community in Western Prince William County, Virginia. Once considered a "piece of heaven," by the formerly enslaved community, Thoroughfare was a tight-knit village just off of Route 55 near Haymarket, VA.
As with most successful post-civil war "Black Wall Street" communities, Thoroughfare, Virginia's Oakrum Baptist Church, was the heartbeat that kept its rich history and village thriving during times when Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, and several other hateful acts became policy put in place with the intent to prevent Blacks from thriving. But they THRIVED!
"The Oakrum Baptist Church was founded in Prince William County in 1865 by freed slave, Alexandra Johnson. Johnson gave praise to God through song and prayer, and soon purchased land to build a home and church home for his family. He soon attracted others who were eager to serve God. The Rev. James Robinson of Washington, D.C. conducted the services, and quickly, Johnson's small country church needed a larger place to meet.
Thankfully, Johnson and his neighbor, Moses Morrison, provided land around the church for a larger building. Eighteen years later, this thriving church became known as Little Zion. Later, the membership changed the church name to Oakrum Baptist Church, and the membership continued to grow with believers from near and far." Oakrum Baptist Church
"Thoroughfare remains unique and true unto itself. The efforts of its dedicated and like-minded populace make it one of the more successful forces in Virginia interested in limiting urban development and congestion." - Jean R. Gardner, Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (1999)
Many in the Greater Prince William community recall a time when Disney had plans to bring "Disney's America" to Thoroughfare, Virginia; but all too often, the details about some of the plans are omitted from the discussion - an attraction to put the peculiar institution of slavery and the Underground Railroad on display. As documents have illustrated, it seems the intent was to highlight the Civil War, and include the parts of history that often go untold.
Being more than 130 years old, the now historical Black community came together in the early 1990's to take a stand against proposed development that would have changed life as they knew it. Their concerns about proposed attractions, to include Disney, echo concerns by many who oppose development now - roughly 30 years later. We encourage our readers to learn more by reading this article from Fauquier Times-Democrat, published in 1994.
In addition to thrill-rides, beautiful hotels, opportunities for economic development and much more, the proposed attraction had plans to tell the tale of the most painful part of American history, as captured in an article published by The Washington Post in 1993:
"This is not a Pollyanna view of America," said Bob Weis, a Disney senior vice president.
"We want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what it was like to escape through the underground railroad," Weis told a packed room of reporters, local and state politicians and community residents. He described in detail the nine different historical theme areas of the park.
As history would have it, the developers eventually shifted their plans, and ultimately decided not to pursue plans to bring the their attractions to Virginia. In fact, in 2004, Thoroughfare, Virginia was celebrated respectfully, with a historical marker! The inscription reads as follows:
"Families of African-American, Native-American, and mixed ancestry migrated here from Fauqier, Culpeper, Rappahannock and Warren Counties after the Civil War. The Allen, Berry, Fletcher, Nickens and Peyton families, along with former slaves from this area, acquired parts of former plantations, built homes and established the farming community of Thoroughfare, which prospered through the 1940s. Many of the "Free People of Color" who settled here were illiterate but their families were not accepted into the schools and churches of their white neighbors. In 1885, the North Fork School was built by local labor with county funding on land donated by the Primas family. In 1899, community growth compelled the families to construct a second-floor room and hire an additional teacher at their own expense. Also, in 1909, members of the community built Oakrum Baptist Church on donated land and selected their own ministers."
We implore our readers, members of the VBLM Village, to dive deeper to gain a greater understanding of our heritage, and the rich history of Thoroughfare, Virginia by reading the resources below - all found using the Prince William County Library's electronic resources! If we do not know our history and tell our own stories, the narrative will be presented from a different perspective.