Plans by the Leesburg Town Council to turn over the responsibility to maintain a long-ignored African-American cemetery on a town-owned tract to an outside group took a turn Tuesday as representatives of the Loudoun Freedom Center strongly criticized the process.
The town in November issued a request for proposals seeking parties wanting to assume maintenance responsibility for the property. The town purchased the land in 1989 and 1990 to provide a buffer as part of plans to expand Leesburg Executive Airport. The 55 unmarked graves in two overgrown cemeteries were discovered in 2007. The burial sites are affiliated with the Lower Sycolin African American community and date back to the late 1800s.
Freedom Center founder Pastor Michelle Thomas has repeatedly criticized the town’s stewardship of the burial grounds, including instances where deer carcasses were dumped on the property. While there has been some clean-up of the grounds, the property remains overgrown woodlands.
Loudoun County NAACP President Phillip Thompson on Tuesday told the Town Council the site was an embarrassment to the town. “It is horrible out there,” he said.
To address those concerns, the town staff initially recommended the town create a master plan for the 3.7-acre area, but some council members questioned whether the town should take on the responsibility for cemetery maintenance. That debate resulted in the plan to issue an RFP to find someone willing to take on the responsibility under a lease arrangement, with a $1/year, 5-year-term proposed.
The action was designed to allow an organization such as the Freedom Center, which has a mission of protecting African-American heritage sites and which led the preservation and restoration effort on another slave-era cemetery on the former Belmont plantation in Ashburn, to take control of the land.
But on Tuesday, Thomas, Thompson and others strongly criticized the plan.
Thomas pointed out that only three council members had toured the property and fewer had “engaged the African-American community” to discuss their desires for the property.
Thomas called the terms proposed in the RFP a “sharecropper’s” deal that would put all the burden on the leasing organization but offered no long-term benefit or assurance the group’s investment would be preserved. She also questioned why no public money was being offered to support the upkeep, comparing the proposed deal with the new lease the council was providing for the Loudoun Museum. That agreement, approved by the council Tuesday night, included town funds to assist with the maintenance of the town-owned buildings that house the museum. She called that a “sweetheart” deal.
“You will have to agree that these are very similar to the sharecropping agreements during Jim Crow,” Thomas said.
Thompson, who said he visited the cemetery for the first time earlier in the day, described the council’s actions as racist and claimed they violated a memorandum of understanding that he said required the NAACP to be consulted on such issues.
The critics urged the council to abandon the RFP process and open direct talks with representatives of the African-American community about the future of the property.
Councilman Marty Martinez attempted to do that, but his motion to suspend the council’s meeting rules and vote on the issue required a unanimous vote. Councilman Tom Dunn objected, pushing the debate to the council’s next meeting Jan. 8. However, with the RFP response deadline set for Jan. 3, Martinez later indicated he would attempt to schedule a special meeting next week when the council could vote to cancel the RFP process. A special meeting only requires three days advance notice and the support of just two council members.