When the new and historic intersect, it can be contentious.
That’s what parties involved in preserving a slave cemetery near the busy intersection of Rt. 7 and Belmont Ridge Road are finding. A group of activists working to protect the largest slave cemetery in Loudoun County say the massive construction project on the busy interchange is encroaching on the sacred site.
Pastor Michelle C. Thomas of Holy & Whole Life Changing Ministries learned of the cemetery more than a year ago. She worked with the county government and Belmont developer Toll Brothers, who owned the 2.75 acres on which the cemetery sat, to have the property turned over to a private foundation that would restore and maintain the cemetery.
The newly formed foundation was set to finalize paperwork to take over the site when Thomas stopped by to walk the property.
“What I found was a damaged site,” she said. Specifically, she found that trees had been cut down, sediment from construction work had settled into a dry pond, and construction crews had apparently been using the property as a bathroom, not knowing it was a cemetery. “There was feces—human feces—and tissue paper,” she said.
“They’re encroaching on an area that is a very important piece of land,” Thomas said.
Protecting the property and its 43 gravesites is important because the men and women buried there are a vital part of the county’s history, Thomas says. “It’s critical because they existed. And when people exist on a planet, they deserve to be remembered,” she said. “It matters because we matter.”
The county government has known about the cemetery for years and actually moved the interchange slightly west from the its originally planned location so as to not disturb the gravesites, according to county staff.
A spokesman with Loudoun County government, which is managing the construction of the interchange, said the county has heard the activists’ concerns and is ensuring the site is protected. Last week, county leaders met with construction workers to make sure they are aware of the cemetery’s location and that no one should be trespassing on the property.
“We have received reassurance that they will abide by these restrictions,” Public Affairs and Communications Officer Glen Barbour wrote in an emailed statement.
Also in response to concerns, an erosion and sediment control inspector visited the site last week. “One issue associated with fiber installation was noted and corrected right away,” Barbour wrote.
County staff has directed contractors to replace damaged and deteriorated safety fence around the property and post “no trespassing” signs, which are now up.
Barbour said in an email that the county recognizes the importance of the cemetery site and has worked for several months to ensure its protected.
“The County is committed to preserving the cemetery while carefully managing the nearby construction project in a manner that preserves the historic and sacred site,” he wrote. “The County took the concerns about the site that were brought to our attention last week seriously and acted immediately to investigate the situation and to address any issues with our contractors and their workers.”
Long term, Thomas and the other trustees want the site to be a place that passersby can visit and walk through. They want the brush to be cleared away from the fieldstones that mark each grave and, maybe one day, a chapel to be erected on the property.
Loudoun NAACP’s Phillip E. Thompson, who is a trustee of the foundation formed to preserve the cemetery, said the county has history of forgetting sites that are sacred to the African American community. He said these sites often go unnoticed until something awful happens to them to them. He gave the example of the Ashburn Colored School, which was vandalized and spray-painted with racist messages earlier this month. Since then, an effort to restore that historic schoolhouse has raised $100,000.
“No one cared about that place until a swastika was drawn on it,” he said.