It appears that sacred ground in Leesburg is set to change hands, with the Town Council Monday night indicating a preference to transfer ownership of the Sycolin Cemetery land to the Loudoun Freedom Center.
The cemetery site has been the subject of controversy over the past few months, with community leaders criticizing the town for not properly maintaining the site. Council members appeared content to allow an outside group to take over maintenance, but when they considered leasing the site, it created an even louder outcry—with the leading critic, Loudoun Freedom Center founder Pastor Michelle Thomas, comparing the deal to a “sharecropper’s agreement.”
While some on the council had previously indicated a preference to follow the staff recommendation of creating an ad hoc committee to determine the best way to proceed with the site, the will of the council became clear this week—that the property should change hands altogether.
The council was expected Tuesday night to direct the staff to schedule a public hearing to consider a transfer of ownership of the land to the Loudoun Freedom Center, which was the only entity to respond to a town request to indicate interest in taking care of the land.
“I think that the best thing to do if there’s an interested party, one that’s come forward with what they would like to do at that location, is give them the ability to do that because they’re the most interested party. They can use their resources to bring together stakeholders as they see fit,” Councilman Tom Dunn said during Monday’s work session.
There will still need to be some legwork done prior to a public hearing, as the town staff needs to confer with the Federal Aviation Administration regarding the logistics of transferring a property to an outside entity, the size of the parcels being transferred, and any costs to the town. While it was initially thought that the sale or transfer of the land could cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars, that figure is now believed to be much lower, council members said.
The Sycolin Community Cemetery is an African American burial ground located on town-owned property adjacent to the Leesburg Executive Airport. The cemetery was associated with the Lower Sycolin community, an African American community established in the 1870s, and with the former Sycolin Union Church that is known today as the First Baptist Church Sycoline. The last burials took place in the late 1940s.
The town acquired the three parcels containing the cemetery in 1989 and 1990, using grant funding from the FAA to expand the Runway Protection Zone for the airport. The cemetery itself is not located within the Runway Protection Zone, but any improvements on the site are subject to aviation easements and require FAA approval.