The future of Sycolin Cemetery in Leesburg remains in limbo.
The Leesburg Town Council on Monday night discussed the possibility of putting together a master plan for the property. The land, purchased by the town almost 30 years ago, is the final resting place for 55 African Americans between two cemeteries. The town purchased the eight-acre site across from the Leesburg Airport in 1989 and 1990 to provide a buffer for the south end of the airport runway. The land remains undeveloped and the discovery of the two cemeteries was made in 2007. The burial areas were affiliated with the Lower Sycolin African American Community that existed in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Two years ago, Pastor Michelle C. Thomas of the Loudoun Freedom Center approached the town about an opportunity to preserve the burial area. A significant clean-up of the site ensued, with many volunteers donating their time. It was at that time that the first instance of deer carcasses being dumped on the property was discovered. A similar instance was discovered late last year and earlier this month, and resulted in four arrests.
The most recent discovery of dumping on the site brought criticism that the town was not properly maintaining the site and prompted Mayor Kelly Burk to propose the possibility of creating a master plan for Sycolin Cemetery. On Monday night, Burk said her preference would be for the Thomas Balch Library Advisory Committee’s Black History Committee to take the lead on the project.
“They can bring the communities of interest together and have a discussion on what we need to do to preserve this site,” she explained. “My intent was that we get this master plan in place so we have a guide to follow in the months and years to come. If we don’t have any plan in place nothing’s going to change.”
Town Manager Kaj Dentler said the town continues to maintain the property and provide access to the burial areas as is required by state law. With the site serving as a designated Runway Protection Zone and the property purchased with funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, he emphasized that any investigation into transferring ownership of the property or development of plans for it would need the FAA’s blessing.
Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox said before forming a subcommittee or putting together a master plan, she wanted to understand what the FAA would allow on the property.
“This is a site that should be maintained, but we don’t know by whom yet and the conditions under which that can happen. I want to find out more before we go to master plan,” she said.
Council members Josh Thiel, Ron Campbell and Tom Dunn also supported waiting to hear from the FAA before deciding how to proceed.
Reached Tuesday, Thomas said she hopes the Town Council ultimately will transfer ownership of the site to her organization, the Loudoun Freedom Center. She pointed to a statement by Town Attorney Barbara Notar on Monday night that the town was not legally required to maintain the site, only to provide access to the burial areas.
“Everything that’s legal is not moral,” she said. “We’ve seen over 25 years that they’re not going to do more than what is legally required. They don’t have the heart, the compassion, or care about the African American community to go above what is legally required.”
Thomas noted that the Lower Sycolin community has a “vibrant story that needs to be told.”
“I’m sick of this … debased type of story that we continue to tell when we have stories of accomplishment and resilience and entrepreneurship and community that outweighs some of this down-and-out slavery I can’t pull myself up again. This is a triumphant story that should be told and celebrated throughout our town and county,” she said.