Hunt Club residents in Reston worry redevelopment will affect possible slave cemetery

Hunt Club Cluster residents in Reston are pushing back against a potential redevelopment of a 9-acre property just north of Lake Fairfax Park that encompasses a possible slave cemetery and a 1790s-era log cabin.

SEM Fairfax Land Associates has been working to secure approval from Fairfax County to build Fairfax Hunt Estates, a community of eight single-family homes, at 1321 Lake Fairfax Drive and preserve the log cabin known as Fairfax Hunt Club, according to the application submitted on Nov. 22, 2022.

Tonight (Wednesday), the Fairfax County Planning Commission will decide whether to green-light the developer’s ambitious construction plans at a public hearing.

Hunt Club resident and former Associated Press reporter Heather Greenfield has been following the story since she and her next-door neighbor discovered several gravestones in the greenscape behind their townhome complex in 2013.

Greenfield says she and her next-door neighbor worked with the Fairfax Cemetery Preservation Association from 2013-2015 in hopes of preserving the site as the Johnson cemetery, named after its 1860 owner Mildred Johnson. While researching the land’s historic 19th-century roots, she learned that Johnson was a Union abolitionist and mother to 11 who played a large role in “protecting African Americans” by housing at least one freedman named Courtney Honesty.

“Reston was founded on this principle of diversity…so I found it fascinating that [the Johnson family was] sort of living the principles of Reston before Reston was even created,” Greenfield said.

Though the county still refers to the area as unnamed cemetery #FX242, Greenfield feels strongly that the area is a burial site for individuals enslaved by the Johnson family and their descendants. The site includes an engraved marker for Mildred’s husband, Thornton Johnson, and gravestones that Greenfield believes belong to several African American individuals.

“We think the rest of the two acre cemetery were African American graves because even though the [Johnson] family all had headstones, African Americans likely did not,” Greenfield said. “And [what we found] were mostly headstones and footstones that were more crude stones arranged in kind of wheel patterns around some of the cedar trees.”

The developer began scouting out the site in May of last year, sending contractors to landscape the area “in order to facilitate locating the graves during their archaeological survey,” according to a statement from Fairfax County Park Authority Public Information Officer Benjamin Boxer.

Even over a year later, Greenfield vividly recalls the day developers came in “bulldozers blazing and chainsaws going.”

“I woke up at 6:30 in the morning to chainsaws, and they continued for 12 hours that day and then they came back and did the same thing the next day,” Greenfield said.

Though Greenfield suspected that contractors were not authorized to cut down trees in the area, the county says permits from Land Development Services for vegetation removal are only required when the land disturbance exceeds 2,500 square feet.

“It appears vegetation was removed in May 2022 in order to complete the archeological delineation of the cemetery,” a county urban forester wrote. “Urban Forestry’s Forest Conservation Branch was not aware of the vegetation removal at this time and would not have reviewed it.”

According to a July 12 staff report on the proposed development, the county’s Archaeology and Collections Branch found “the studies and treatment of the cemetery are appropriate and noted no issue.”

“The cemetery will remain undisturbed through the development of the site and will be fenced with iron fencing,” as agreed to by the developer, Boxer said, noting that care of the cemetery will fall under the “responsibility of the HOA.”

However, Greenfield claims that at least one residential property included in SEM’s drafted plans — house 6 of the eight — would encroach upon the grave site, causing her to feel “frustrated.”

“I just feel like they’re trying to wedge this house on an area that may still be the cemetery after the destruction that already occurred,” Greenfield said. “It just feels like it doesn’t respect the family and their place in Fairfax and particularly in early pre-Reston history.”

She also highlighted the importance of keeping cemeteries publicly accessible.

“I think a lot of people don’t know…cemeteries are supposed to be open places, Greenfield said. “People are supposed to be given access to visit at any time.”

Looking ahead to tonight’s hearing, Greenfield expressed hopes for increased protections of the cemetery with SEM approaching her neighborhood, but she accepts that redevelopment is “probably inevitable at some point.”

“It would be disappointing if [SEM gets] the green light with the plan as [is],” Greenfield said. “My hope is that the zoning commissioners would do more to preserve the history and architecture of this area by at the very least saying no [to] the house number six that’s just north of the cemetery or in the cemetery, depending on who you ask.”

SEM did not respond to FFXnow’s request for comment before press time.