There are 177 graves in the church's cemetery, some dating back to the 19th century. For four years, the church has been battling the Federal Highway Administration to preserve the cemetery — and its land.
Pastor Travis Hilton says the church received its first proposition for Route 1 widening from the Federal Highway Administration during the fall of 2008. Church leaders started dealing with the possibility of road widening and how it would affect the cemetery. Hilton said the church did not sign the proposal.
“That’s when things really started to accelerate, realizing that we were going to be dealing with it,” Hilton said. “Obviously, it came with BRAC realignment and as they were seeing that here on the horizon the need to accommodate the traffic. That’s when we realized we were dealing with something they seemed to be serious about.”
Over the past four years, Hilton has met with local and state legislators and attended private meetings and public hearings. At first, the church’s priority was the safety of its congregation. Making a left hand turn to enter the church from southbound Route 1 is a risky maneuver for drivers.
“One of the goals was that we could obtain some kind of safety feature or entryway into our property that would be safe because Route 1 is 45 miles per hour on a grade,” said Hilton. “It’s a clear and present danger, and the stables [Woodlawn Stables] shares the same concern.”
The church has strong ties to Mount Vernon. It was originally a part of the Woodlawn Plantation. John and Rachel Mason purchased Woodlawn Mansion and part of the land in 1850. In 1859, the Masons founded a Sunday “Lord’s Day” school. By August 1868, Woodlawn Baptist was constituted a church and was received into the Potomac Association of Southern Baptists. In 1872, Otis Mason, the son of John and Rachel, gave a portion of the estate he owned for the building of a “meeting house.” Otis Mason preached at Woodlawn Baptist until 1876.
The church now stands on about four acres of land. The Masons are buried in the church’s cemetery.
Hilton says that both widening options being considered would alter the church’s property. "The widening alternative could take 100 graves, it could take all of them for that matter and place them somewhere else on our property," he explained. "The other alternative is the Southern bypass, which will also take some of our land as well, but will not affect the cemetery itself.“
“How are you going to separate families in our cemetery? How is it that you can separate families from their original plots?” Hilton asked.
The church’s goal is to see the preservation of as much of its property as possible because every acre is crucial for its operation. It has been a challenge for the church to utilize space for parking for large events.
“We’re not advocating either one,” he said. “We’re going to have property that’s going to be occupied by graves that we could utilize for other things and that’s not good for any church that’s a functioning church for the community.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources website states “relocation of burials should be considered as a “last resort,” applicable only when the burials or cemetery are endangered or when family or descendants request their relocation.” The website also notes that there are specific instances where removal is considered to be in the public interest.
“What I’m most concerned about is a historic cemetery being uprooted,” said Mary Lippsey, president of the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association.
Lippsey and her association members are sending letters to public officials to advocate for the preservation of the cemetery.
Del. Scott Surovell (D-44th) has voiced his opposition to the widening of Route 1 through the cemetery. He, along with other local politicians, has signed a letter in support of the "widening in place" option.
“I actually do not support running a road through the cemetery,” Surovell said. "From my point of view, I think the road can be widened without widening through the cemetery. I think the National Trust can swap a little bit of land on the north side and get a little bit more land out of the military base to deal with this.”
Although some of the graves have historic significance, each of the graves holds spiritual significance to the congregation.
"There is a spiritual significance to burying bodies in the grave," Hilton explained. "In the Bible there are so many allusions to burial, and the significance is that burial is a hope for what’s to come. Those bodies will not remain in those graves, but there will be a resurrection. Just as Jesus was resurrected from the grave, that we anticipate that we too will be resurrected."