Plans to move buried human remains to make way for a development that includes a Walmart Supercenter, a hotel and office space in Leesburg have prompted a wave of opposition from community members.
A familiar face led the charge this week to call attention to the plans by the developers of Compass Creek development, which were discovered Friday in a public notice printed in a local newspaper. Pastor Michelle Thomas, of the Loudoun Freedom Center and Holy & Whole Life Changing Ministries, rallied local support and asked residents to attend a meeting on the matter Monday night at Thomas Balch Library.
Their plans, she notes, are “perfectly legal, but profoundly immoral.”
The plans, filed by Peterson Companies to the Loudoun County Circuit Court, call for the disinterment of human remains and their relocation to another cemetery. As construction on the 550-acre site just off Battlefield Parkway and the Dulles Greenway got underway, eight gravesites covering about 1,000 square feet were found at Cool Spring Farm. Some are marked with fieldstones and some are not.
While the identity of the individuals buried there is unknown, the property has been traced back to a reservation in a deed for Samuel C. Jackson and his wife Margaret Ann (Donohue) Jackson dated in 1867.
Monday night’s public input meeting was a part of the legal process Peterson Companies must follow to move the gravesites. It was attended by throngs of area residents voicing opposition to the plans.
Thomas said it was “egregious” that the public notice was printed in a newspaper only days before the meeting was held. She posited this was the developer’s way of rushing through the process in hopes the plans would go unnoticed. She said she was also upset that some of the remains may be used for research by the archaeologist hired by the developer.
“Research? We’re not your research project,” Thomas said.
A Walmart Supercenter, scheduled to open in spring 2019, will anchor the Compass Creek master-planned community, alongside the ION International Training Center, to include two large ice rinks. Those are part of the project’s first phase. The portion of the property where the gravesites sit is part of a later phase that includes 2.5 million square feet of office space, 550,000 square feet of retail, 300,000 square feet of flex industrial and a hotel.
Reached Tuesday, Stephen Green, Peterson Companies’ assistant vice president of development, said the company is open to the community’s thoughts about the project. He said more than once that all options are still on the table. If the final development plan is to relocate the remains, Peterson will take into account the community’s input in how that should happen.
Asked whether leaving the graves undisturbed is still being considered, he said yes.
“We’re exploring all options. It’s an important aspect. That’s why we’re going through this process to hear the stakeholders, and to consider all options,” Green said.
This is not the first fight Thomas has had in preserving burial grounds in Loudoun. She led the charge to have the Belmont slave cemetery preserved after the discovery of the graves before the road Rt. 7/Belmont Ridge Road interchange project. She also is working to bring attention to the Sycolin Community Cemetery, located on property acquired by the Town of Leesburg as part of a plan to realign Sycolin Road and extend the Leesburg Executive Airport runway. The town, with help from the Loudoun Freedom Center, is working to improve accessibility to that cemetery, install interpretive signage to tell the stories of the Sycolin community, a black community settled by former slaves and their descendants in the 1880s.
If the remains at the Compass Creek property are indeed those of former slaves, Thomas said, it is an affront to preserving the history of Loudoun residents who have already been treated as less than.
“If you own the remains of slaves, you own slaves,” Thomas said. “And then you make a decision they’re so unimportant you can dig them up for your convenience, move them someone else and build on top of their sacred space. They are devaluing people that are already devalued.”
Juli Briskman, a Potomac Falls resident who visited the site with Thomas this week, said keeping just that corner of the property untouched would show goodwill toward the community.
Whether former slaves or white families are laid to rest there, the site is sacred and should be preserved, she said. “If they were slaves, they would have been treated disrespectfully as property and now they’re going to be inhumanly dug up. Where’s their dignity?”
Green said he is hopeful that community input would shed some light who is buried on the site. Anyone with information is asked to contact Thunderbird Archeology by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 703-679-5623, or by mail at 5300 Wellington Branch Drive Suite 100, Gainesville, VA 20155.
Thomas has started a petition at Change.org.