The Development Fight Continues for Historic Black Area in Virginia

By Shani Saxon Jul 19, 2021

The Settlement is a neighborhood in Virginia’s Prince William County that was built by formerly enslaved Black people. Today, the area is embroiled in a fight over how much new development should be allowed there, The Washington Post reports. Some property owners want to see more affordable housing built on the land, while others want to limit new builds and to preserve the neighborhood’s legacy. 

Some Black landowners in The Settlement argue that a proposal to scale down the amount of new development allowed in the area “would deprive them of the generational wealth that has long eluded African Americans,” according to The Post. This argument has resonated with the four Black members of the Board of County Supervisors

“I have three daughters, I have five grandkids and I want the best for them,” James A. Jackson, whose family has owned 15 acres in The Settlement for 101 years, recently told the board, according to The Post. “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.”

Reports The Post:

The Settlement started in 1887 with Sally Grayson, who became the area’s first known African American landowner after she bought seven 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. 

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

The area began to lose value quickly in the 1990’s when, according to The Post, the Walt Disney Co. abandoned plans to build a 3,000-acre history-themed park in the area. That decision, however, didn’t stop white people in nearby suburbs from buying land in the area due to cheaper prices for more space. The Post reports that “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.”

According to The Post:

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. 
rn“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.

In 2014, Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R-Brentsville), who is white, began championing “efforts to keep the rest of The Settlement intact,” The Post reports. She has worked with locals and property owners to create a proposal that would reduce the amount of new development allowed in The Settlement. 

“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,” according to The Post.

Other property owners oppose Lawson’s proposal. Ernest Lightfoot, who is Black, told The Post that his mother and sister plan on staying in the neighborhood, and that “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.

That argument pushed five Democrats on the eight-member county board to send Lawson’s plan back for revisions that would include higher density.

Supervisor Victor S. Angry (D-Neabsco) told The Post that he was primarily swayed by the arguments about generational wealth.

The idea that a local government could 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.