Plans to preserve an unattended slave-era cemetery in Leesburg have ramped up significantly in recent weeks.
That’s thanks in large part to the efforts of Pastor Michelle C. Thomas and the Loudoun Freedom Center.
The presence of the cemetery in the woods along Sycolin Road wasn’t unknown, but it was little known. Raising the public profile of the burial ground—believed to be the final resting place for 40 to 100 people—is particularly important as the town begins work on the long-planned extension of the Leesburg Executive Airport runway.
The cemetery is located on land the town acquired for the expansion project. Sycolin Road will be re-aligned to make room for the runway and the new road could encroach on the cemetery under current designs.
Some in town government initially suggested the concern could be addressed by reinterring the remains elsewhere. That’s not likely to happen now. Instead, Thomas is working with town and county leaders to ensure the graveyard is preserved and that improvements are made to help tell the stories of the men and women buried there.
“That’s sad. That can never be an option,” Thomas said of moving the remains. “The ground itself is sacred, not just the graves.”
Thomas is the pastor of the Holy and Whole Life Changing Ministries in Lansdowne. She also is co-founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, which has a mission to preserve historic African-American sites and to better document and tell the stories of Loudoun’s black communities, most of which have been largely erased by development.
The center is familiar with the challenges of protecting graveyards. Last year, Thomas’ group successfully negotiated with Toll Brothers, the developer of Belmont Country Club, to preserve a slave cemetery in the woods along Belmont Ridge Road.
In the Leesburg case, Thomas and Loudoun Freedom Center co-founder Fred Snowden first met with Vice Mayor Kelly Burk and Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg) at the site and quickly won their support. After meetings with Mayor Dave Butler and Town Manager Kaj Dentler, plans were formed to clean up and protect the site and to begin to document the gravesites in more detail.
“It was a deer dump,” Thomas said.
The town removed the carcasses from the area and posted no trespassing signs. Next, Dentler said the town hopes to work with the county government’s historic preservation planner, Heidi Siebentritt, to help establish the basic GPS location of the visible depressions before the summer growing season makes that work more difficult.
Much of what is known about the graveyard comes from research conducted by Jim Koenig, who works as the design and construction manager for the county’s Department of General Services. He happened upon two cemeteries in the area while walking in the woods about eight years ago. He began staking out the depressions and then conducted research in the genealogy records at the Thomas Balch Library. Ultimately, he published his findings in a 51-page report.
“There are at least 43 graves of people who lived in Leesburg and were part of a community of African-Americans in both life and death. While alive, some were still in the shadow of slavery having been born in a slave state before Emancipation. Others were only a generation or two removed from that era. All shared bonds of family, friends, neighborhood, a church, and the experience of growing up black or mulatto and living in a small southern town within a rural farming county,” Koenig wrote.
Aside from one modern headstone, Koenig’s markers amid the trees and stone are still the only tangible signs of the burial grounds.
“It’s sad. We just happened upon the site,” Thomas said. “Our history is precarious at best.”
She is gratified by the collaboration with the town and county governments to protect the graveyard, but she is worried about other important aspects of African-American life that may be lost.
“Our enemy is really development,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of protection under the law.”
As a newly appointed member of the Loudoun County Heritage Commission, Thomas hopes to put a new focus on the concern, perhaps with the formation of a new task force.
Freedom Center Seeks New Space
The Loudoun Freedom Center is need of a little help itself. Co-founder Pastor Michelle Thomas said the space in Lansdowne that houses the center and its collection of 600 artifacts dating back to the slave and Jim Crow eras has been sold. The center faces a March 15 deadline to move out.
She is hopeful that someone in the community concerned about protecting the county’s history will help the organization find new space to continue its operations.
Learn more about the center at loudounfreedomfoundation.com.