A yearlong project to catalogue Loudoun’s historic burial grounds has culminated in an online database of more than 200 active and historic cemeteries.
The work was prompted by repeated incidents in which historic burial grounds—often from Loudoun’s black communities—were found on land slated for development, such as at the intersection of Rt. 7 and Belmont Ridge Road. That site is now preserved as the Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont.
Around that same time, there were also burial grounds discovered at Sycolin Community Cemetery, on property acquired by the Town of Leesburg to realign Sycolin Road; in a cemetery at the Compass Creek development in Leesburg; and the Tippets Hill Cemetery, where a developer worked around the burial grounds to build data centers.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) gave credit to Loudoun Freedom Center founder Pastor Michelle Thomas, who was one of the loudest voices around the outcry at many of those sites, for prompting the work.
“A lot of this started when we were talking about cemeteries for the formerly enslaved at Belmont,” Randall said. “…It does speak to how one person’s passion can lead to something like this.”
The mapping initiative was launched by Randall and supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg).
But the process began even before then. Historians for years have delved into county records and trekked through undeveloped fields and forests, looking for the telltale signs of burial grounds. Many of those same historians worked with the Thomas Balch Library Black History Committee, Loudoun Freedom Center, Loudoun Heritage Commission, Loudoun Historic Cemetery Committee, Oatlands, the Loudoun Preservation Society and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
It represents the first systematic effort to create a consolidated, complete database of locations and information about the burial grounds. The Loudoun County Office of Mapping and Geographic Information has made the information and tools to use it available online with an interactive map. It is paired with a “story map,” a way for visitors to learn about the initiative and share new information with the county about potentially unmapped graves, burial grounds and cemeteries.
“We faced a number of challenges in this project,” stated Office of Mapping and GIS Director Kristin Brown. “The socio-economic status of Loudoun residents varied widely in the 17th century, including enslaved African Americans, poor tenant farmers, and wealthy property owners. As a result, burial traditions varied. People were often buried on private property, sometimes with engraved monuments or headstones, but often with wooden markers that have since disintegrated.”
Most of the cemeteries are on private property. The map also includes links to the relevant state law governing access to cemeteries for property owners, family members and descendants.
“The interactive map is intended to serve as a tool for documenting history and future land use planning,” Brown said. “It’s important to identify the sites, but we also encourage residents to follow the law.”
Still, historians expect there are more cemeteries that have yet to be discovered. The website includes a form to fill out and share information about the locations of other cemeteries, burial grounds or graves, or provide additional information or corrections to the map.
The interactive map and story map are at loudoungis.maps.arcgis.com.