In its third year, the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Belmont Slave Cemetery on Sunday took on a more celebratory air as efforts advance to better protect the long-ignored burial ground.
Under the tenacious leadership of Pastor Michelle C. Thomas, the Loudoun Freedom Foundation has worked to develop permanent protections for the land and to tell the stories of the people buried there, including many who labored as slaves at the nearby Belmont and Coton plantations—today’s Belmont Country Club and Lansdowne on the Potomac neighborhoods.
During the first event in 2015, it was difficult to recognize the tract at the southeast corner of the Rt. 7/Belmont Ridge Road intersection as anything other than a woodland habitat. Visitors had to look closely to find the carefully placed field stones used to mark the gravesites more than a century ago. Last spring, Preservation Virginia added the land to its list of Most Endangered Historic Places.
Today, the work of Boy Scouts and other volunteers has begun transforming the property, making it more accessible with a trail and clearing of brush. The property’s owners, Toll Brothers’ Belmont Land LP, carved off the 2.75-acre corner from its larger development and, on Nov. 9, gifted the property the Loudoun Freedom Foundation, which plans to preserve the largest known slave cemetery in Loudoun County as a historic site—to be formally known as the African-American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont. In the months ahead, formal tours will be offered for the first time.
Thomas said it was important for the land to be returned to control of the black community and the descendants of those buried there. “It will forever be our land and our history. African-American history is American history,” she said.
While the cemetery will be used to help tell the story of slavery in Loudoun, Thomas highlighted the importance of honoring the individuals buried there. The names of those known to be interred on the property were read out loud by students during the program.
“They were, because we found them. We know that’s true. They are, because their blood runs through us. We know that’s true. They will forever be, because we will forever honor them and memorializing them today is just the beginning,” Thomas said.
The 90-minute program was emceed by Ron Campbell, a Leesburg Town Councilman who has helped in the effort to have the cemetery put into community ownership. He said the effort is part of a “movement of reconciliation.”
“The last three and a half years of this process has been one of learning how to trust, learning how to care, learning how to listen. It’s been about people not politics, sometimes it has been about politics, but mostly it has been about people,” Campbell said. “It’s been about a commitment and we certainly gather today to celebrate all who have helped us honor this moment in time. This is a moment when the past comes together to be honored by the present.”
Other elected representatives participating in Sunday’s program were U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10th), state Sen. Jennifer Wexton and Del. Randy Minchew.
Wexton highlighted a law that passed in the statehouse last year adding historic black cemeteries to the list of cemeteries that are eligible to receive state funding for their preservation and upkeep. The law had primarily been used to protect Confederate gravesites, with 214 of those cemeteries on the commonwealth’s list.
“So far there are two African-American cemeteries on that list with almost 5,000 graves. It is my intention in this next session to add the Belmont Slave Cemetery to that list,” Wexton said.
Comstock hailed the work being done by the Loudoun Freedom Foundation, Oatlands and others in Loudoun County to research and share information about Loudoun’s enslaved residents.
“This is the mission now, to tell the stories,” Comstock said. “I thank you, Pastor Michelle and everybody involved in this, for giving voices to the voiceless. So many of these voices were silent during their lifetime. They weren’t known about, but now our duty is to bring all of this to light. We need to know their stories, their names, and understand how they lived and how they died, because all of this is important to know in our community.”