FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- At 6 a.m. Saturday, CWO2 Clint Harris began mowing Woodlawn Cemetery while his son, Jason, raked leaves. By 8 a.m. about 50 others had joined him from Fort Belvoir, Woodlawn United Methodist Church and Fort Belvoir Elementary School. They were there to clean the cemetery and honor veterans buried there by placing flags at each headstone in honor of Memorial Day.

Students and their families from Fort Belvoir Elementary volunteered their time Saturday to rake and bag debris.

"I came out here because I wanted to help clean the cemetery for all of the veterans who died in honor of Memorial Day," said Logan Bell, 11-year-old Fort Belvoir Elementary student.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time set aside to honor the nation's Civil War dead by decorating their graves. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May.

So the graves would be decorated in time for the holiday, volunteers came with rakes, hoes, shovels, lawn mowers, and trimmers. Wearing tennis shoes, work out apparel and gardening gloves, the community was prepared to work hard and accomplish the task at hand.

"This is a tribute and good opportunity for the community to come together," said Mattie Fallen, reading specialist, Fort Belvoir Elementary School. "We want to teach our youth to give back, give them a sense of community and to be responsible citizens.

"Being that today is so close to Memorial Day, this clean up is even more special. I've been reflecting on the history of this area and am proud to see how far we have come."

There are many compelling stories of those who lie in Woodlawn Cemetery along with many other veterans who not only served their community but their country. Several WWII and a Vietnam veteran are buried in the cemetery.

"I'm excited about this project, my parents are buried here," said church member Mildred Gibson. "There is so much history here, it's so nice to see the children here and that they are a part of its preservation."

In her dissertation, Educator and Gum Springs resident, Judith Sanders Burton wrote, "In 1865, small groups of former slaves gathered to establish a church in the vicinity of old Camp A.A. Humphreys, now known as Fort Belvoir. In 1866, the first church was built on the plot of land where the Woodlawn Cemetery is currently located. The first step of the church is still on cemetery grounds. The land was a gift from a Quaker, Joseph Cox."

In 1888, the first church was torn down and a second church was erected on the opposite side of the road, where Fort Belvoir Elementary School is located currently.

After 1940, numerous families were displaced from their small farms during Belvoir's expansion. It was this phase of the expansion that the small historic African American community of Woodlawn disintegrated. The Woodlawn Methodist Church and residents moved north to Gum Springs.

The Belvoir Castle Newspaper reported in the June, 12 1987, edition: "In fact, according to a recent edition of Ripley's, Believe it or Not, Woodlawn Cemetery is the only active private cemetery on a military installation in America. Believe it or not."

"Most of those who are buried in this cemetery don't have relatives in the area , most of the relatives have moved. The upkeep of the cemetery is important, it's been wonderful how the community has come together and gotten involved," said Sam NeSmith, the church's interim pastor.

When the morning began, the grass and weeds stood about 2 feet tall in the cemetery, leaves and branches covered the ground, small trees has begun to grow, and large ant hills were everywhere.

By noon, 100 bags of leaves, debris and trash sat in tied bags next to the cemetery fence. The lawn was moved, raked, and looked professionally manicured.

Fallen, in conjunction with Pauline Hunter, Community Relations Branch Chief, Public Affairs, wanted to connect the students with a long-term beautification project. They were introduced informally, and a partnership was formed to facilitate a bi-annual clean up of the cemetery on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

"To see this kind of involvement is really an inspiration to the school, post and church. Everyone here is just so excited to work," said NeSmith. "This gives us hope this project will continue perpetually. It's the only way we can keep this facility as a nice scenic attraction. The involvement from non-church members has really helped build community, which is vital for such a project to continue."

Page last updated Thu May 21st, 2009 at 10:52