In 1775, a Church Where Black & White Could Worship Together

Bull Run Regional Park’s emancipation history is honored.

Using ground-penetrating radar, NOVA Parks discovered that 91 people are buried in the former Harris Family Cemetery in Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville. And this year’s second annual Juneteenth celebration, hosted Saturday, June 17 by NOVA Parks and the Fairfax County NAACP, paid homage to their memory and to the man who emancipated their ancestors.

The park was once part of former slaveowner Robert Carter III’s 65,000-acre plantation. “But in his early 40s, he became a Baptist and had a spiritual awakening,” said the Rev. Lynda Alicudo of the NAACP. “He came to a deep understanding that his slaves were his brothers – his family, eternally. Believing no man should own another, in 1775 he built a Baptist church where Black and white, slave and free, could all worship together.”

The Bull Run Baptist Church is no more, but in that church’s cemetery in the park is where some of those former enslaved people – and Carter’s eldest son – are buried. “There are no grave markers because he believed all were equal in life and in death,” said Alicudo. “In 1791, he began emancipating nearly 500 people – 70 years before the Civil War – making him probably the largest, private emancipator in American history.

“He provided them with money, transportation, land, tools, and made certain they had the skills to survive. On Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the 10 Confederate states that were still in rebellion. But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the enslaved in Texas were told they were free.” Now a federal holiday, Juneteenth commemorates that day.

Members of the Harris family were among people enslaved by Carter, and descendant Chrystal Gaskins said those buried at the cemetery descended from those freed by Carter. They included the parents of Alfred Harris, who became an Alexandria City Councilman and a four-term Virginia delegate and chartered the commonwealth’s first public college for African Americans. Many of the Harrises still live in Centreville and the Washington Metropolitan area.

“When NOVA Parks was created 64 years ago, the parks were segregated, so a regional park was created that would be open to all,” said NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert. “In 1963, the Harris family gave the land for Bull Run Regional Park; and today we commemorate one of the most inspiring stories of our region.”

“We’re celebrating Juneteenth and the Harris family legacy on the grounds where it all happened,” said Fairfax County NAACP President Michelle Leete. “Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom and resilience, despite all the odds. Today we remember the past, while looking forward to the future, as we celebrate life, liberty and legacy.”

Supervisor Kathy Smith (D-Sully) said they all came together that day “not only to honor the struggles and achievements of the African American community, but also to acknowledge the ongoing journey toward equality and justice for all. Juneteenth serves as a powerful reminder that the fight for freedom continues.

“We should carry the meaning of Juneteenth with us, every day of the year. Let us educate ourselves and others, amplify marginalized voices and work together to build a future where freedom and justice prevail.”

Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) said that, although the Civil War was fought over slavery and obtaining equality for Black people, “It hasn’t yet resulted in the full recognition of that fact. Lincoln’s speech on the sin of slavery didn’t resonate for many decades. Today’s celebration is a continuation of wounds that have yet to fully heal. But by recognizing that, we can move forward toward a more perfect union.”

“It’s important to remember these stories of Carter, the Harris family and the formerly enslaved people who lived here and went on to do great things in our country,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield). “We need to learn all of our history, and I thank everyone who had a part in bringing these stories to light so we can do better in the future.”

Del. Vivian Watts (D-39th) was a high-school senior in 1954 when the Supreme Court case, Brown vs. the Board of Education, decreed school segregation unconstitutional. “I grew up in the Midwest, and the total separation of the races is still a problem there,” she said. “So coming to Virginia, I was pleased that half the Democratic caucus was the Black caucus. Growing up, I never knew the whole history of our country.”

Del. Dan Helmer (D-40th) introduced a bill in Virginia’s General Assembly recognizing the achievements of Del. Alfred Harris and the Harris family. And Sully District School Board representative Stella Pekarsky said her colleagues want African American history taught “so children will know [Black people’s] contributions.”

Stressing that Black history “has been erased over many generations,” Providence District School Board representative Karl Frisch said, this year, FCPS students “researched the Black stories of our county, and now markers are going up to tell these stories.”

The 50 some attendees at the Juneteenth ceremony then walked through the forest to the cemetery where the Bull Run Baptist Church once stood. Large, white carnations marked each grave. There, Anita Gill-Anderson retold the site’s history via an original poem, and two members of Heritage Baptist Church sang “Amazing Grace” and the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Bishop Brett Fuller, founder of Grace Covenant Church, then gave an inspirational speech about racial unity (see sidebar). Afterward, Boyd Sipe of historical-research expert Thunderbird Archaeological Associates signed a contract/resolution with NOVA Parks to determine the exact location of the foundation of the church Carter built and identify whether the site contains additional graves. 

For more information about Robert Carter III and the Harris Family Cemetery, go to