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Once a striving, self-sufficient community of former slaves in Prince William County, Batestown today is a proud but bitter memory for its former residents and their descendants.
In a recent Tuesday Explorers presentation by AARP Virginia, Batestown native Charlie Reid recalled his carefree childhood and recounted some of the achievements made by members of the former community.
Although free African Americans lived in the section of Prince William County that is now home to Prince William Forest National Park as early as the mid-1800s, Batestown emerged after the Civil War as one of several settlements established by former enslaved people and free African Americans. It got its name from Mary Bates, the matriarch of the community and one of its first settlers. By the early 1900s about 150 people lived in Batestown, growing to about 550 by the 1940s.
Bates and her husband John Thomas donated land and were instrumental in building the Little Union Baptist Church, located near the entrance of what is now the Quantico Marine Base. The church still exists today but in a different building, serving as a place of worship for many Batestown descendants.
Along with the nearby community of Hickory Ridge, which had residents of both races, Batestown was self-sufficient. In addition to raising their own animals and food, they made their own clothes and obtained water from streams and wells. Business was conducted through barter, and the communities governed themselves.
In 1889, the Cabin Branch pyrite mine opened, offering new job opportunities for Batestown and Hickory Ridge residents. Pyrite, or “fool’s gold,” was processed into sulfuric acid and used to make soap, fertilizer, and gunpowder. It was a dirty and dangerous job, and many lost their lives. Reid, the retired police captain of nearby Dumfries, Virginia, lost both an uncle and a cousin in mining accidents.
Although the mine closed in 1920, a later study showed the sulfur poisoned the community’s well water. Reid remembers the water “smelled but tasted OK.” A faint sulfur scent is still noticeable in the park today in the vicinity of the mine’s ruins.
The mine was closed by the time Reid was a child, but he recalls playing around its ruins with other children. Once, he fell into an abandoned mine shaft, causing momentary panic before he was able to scramble out.
Reid remembers his childhood in Batestown as a special time of playing ball, swimming, and fishing. There were juke joints, the Porter’s Inn, the Odd Fellows Hall, and other establishments where residents gathered.
Life in Batestown changed dramatically in 1933 when the federal government, under a Resettlement Administration program, decided to make 15,000 acres south of Washington into a model recreation area, developed by the Citizens Conservation Corps (CCC). They decreed the land Batestown and Hickory Hill residents had successfully farmed for decades to be unsuitable for farming.
Landowners were forced to sell their property for a fraction of its worth, and if they refused to sell, the land was condemned and seized by the government, which made no effort to relocate or compensate residents. A few families managed to resist and remained within the park boundaries.
Over the next several years, CCC workers worked to build roads, trails, and camping facilities. At the beginning of World War II, the federal government turned the park into a training facility for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency, and forced out the 44 remaining residents.
Reid said his grandmother, Anne Reid, was carried out “kicking and screaming” in November 1942. His grandfather had just died, and she didn’t want to leave her home.
After the war, residents were hopeful they could return to their homes, but it was not to be. Instead, the federal government created a new national park, Prince William Forest National Park, on land where they once lived and where their ancestors were buried.
There are about 40 old cemeteries within the park’s boundaries. Initially, when former residents wanted to visit their relatives’ graves, they had to pay admission to the park. The park also had separate entrances for whites and African Americans.
Many of the early African American trailblazers in Prince William County originally came from Batestown. Some, like Reid, served in leadership positions in local and state governments, while others had distinguished military or business careers.
Elected to the Dumfries town council in 1962, John Wilmer Porter was the first African American to serve in an elected municipal position in Virginia since Reconstruction. In 2019, the Dumfries Town Hall was named in his honor.
Annie Williams started working as a midwife in the 1930s and continued to serve the African American community after Batestown was vacated. Calvin Johnson was Prince William County’s first African American police officer. Famous pro basketball player David Robertson attended church in Batestown.
Reid also spoke highly of decorated Marine Sergeant Major Lewis Roundtree, who, though not from Batestown himself, married Batestown native Famie Henderson and contributed extensively to the community.
“Falling down is an accident,” said Reid. “Standing down is a choice.”
There is little documentation available on the history, residents, and descendants of Batestown, although some descendants have developed a website that is currently private.
Other sources used for this story include the African American History section of the Prince William Forest National Park website and a 2007 series of articles by WUSA9 reporter Kari Pugh.
A recording of the program is available on AARP Virginia’s YouTube channel. The Tuesday Explorers series continues through the end of April. For upcoming programs, visit aarp.org/TuesdayExplorers.