In recent years, community leaders have worked to identify, protect and commemorate African-American burial sites across the county. They’re now turning their focus to the grounds of a Hillsboro church, where the congregation is wrestling with the question of how it can memorialize dozens of unmarked graves.
Mark Jagoe, the former six-year pastor of the Hillsboro United Methodist Church, retired in October after, he said, a portion of the congregation refused to acknowledge 72 graves on the church’s east lawn—the final resting places of slaves and black freedmen.
Jagoe said that when he learned of the graves’ existence a few years ago, he and a few others pushed to have markers placed on the gravesites. But, he said, that effort was opposed by some congregation members. His concern was heightened because the church supported efforts to place Confederate markers on graves of Civil War veterans in the church’s white cemetery. Jagoe said that push was evidence that “structural racism” exists within the Hillsboro church.
In recent weeks, representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, the county government, the Loudoun NAACP and the Loudoun Freedom Center have become involved to varying degrees.
Questions about how to protect the black cemetery began five years ago when Jagoe looked to expand the parking lot to accommodate the growing congregation. That’s when he learned that the grass field that faces Rt. 9 was a cemetery. He confirmed the existence of the burial site when he found eight freedman grave markers while poking around with a piece of rebar.
Following that discovery, Jagoe said he brought in an expert to identify the locations of all 72 graves using ground-penetrating radar. Next, he wanted to use the church’s memorial funds to install a memorial wall, but did not win approval.
“The church would not vote to spend a single penny to recognize the 72 brothers and sisters in Christ that are buried on the east end of the property because of their skin color,” Jagoe said. “It broke my heart.”
But Interim Pastor Larry Thompson said those efforts are still underway, noting that one congregation member is working to obtain federal grants to help pay for the wall’s construction. He’s hopeful the church will have more concrete plans for that memorial in the next few months.
“We’re involved in a process that I hope will be expedited,” Thompson said. “I could see a really good event to do that recognition.”
Thompson said there was concern about spending so much of the church’s reserve funds on one project. Instead, the congregation wants to ensure it has money available for future projects, such as for necessary building repairs.
“They’re going to be fiscally conservative, period,” Thompson said of his congregation.
Thompson also pointed out that the field where the unmarked graves are located is “very well cared for” and that it’s not just a cemetery for the enslaved—it’s also the final resting place of multiple white congregation members.
Meanwhile, on the west end of the church property, Jagoe said Boy Scouts worked to place iron crosses and Confederate battle flags in the all-white cemetery through the help and direction of Sons of the Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy. Jagoe said he opposes the placement of those flags and crosses because he feels they’re symbols of structural racism. He said the two organizations “hoodwinked” the Boy Scouts into completing the project.
“It’s right or wrong—this is wrong,” he said.
In an effort to find middle ground, Jagoe designed and installed a sign emphasizing that although the Confederate crosses and flags are present, they “are not intended to reflect support for white supremacy, or be seen as symbols of structural racism.”
Thompson, who’s been the church’s interim pastor for five weeks, said he has seen no such racism within the congregation.
“I’ve not found the people here to be involved in or have any intent at any systemic racism,” he said. “I have found the people to be just delightful people and I’m very happy to be journeying with them through this process that we’re in and look forward to bringing it to an appropriate ending with the recognition.”
Steven Summers, the church’s Winchester district superintendent, said he’s confident that Thompson understands the issue at hand and is working to rectify any concern surrounding it. Summers said the United Methodist Church as a whole has “a deep-seated sense that deplores racism in every form.”
“It’s just absolutely opposed [to racism],” he said. “It’s all about finding unity and togetherness—Larry [Thompson] gets that.”
Jagoe escalated his battle by filing a formal complaint with the Sheriff’s Office regarding the markers that were at one point in the past few years moved from their corresponding slave graves. In Virginia, it’s a class 6 felony if someone “willfully or maliciously destroys, mutilates, defaces, injures, or removes … any tomb, monument, gravestone, or other structure placed within any cemetery, graveyard, or place of burial.”
Heather Williamson, the communications manager for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors did not plan to pursue any chargesbased on the information the Sheriff’s Office provided.
Michelle Thomas, the president of the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP, said that while bringing that concern to the Sheriff’s Office is “absolutely the appropriate action,” the first objective for the NAACP and the Loudoun Freedom Center—a nonprofit organization she founded, in part, to preserve, protect and promote African-American history in Loudoun—is to create a workable relationship with the church property owners and eventually gain access to the property.
“We can probably get more done in that way than working outside of the owners,” she said. “There’s a process.”
Thomas said that she’s spoken with the county aboutgaining access to the church property toperform a survey and determine the status of the graves. “Somebody has to mark that and map it,” she said.
Earlier this year, the county published on online database of more than 200 active and historic cemeteries in Loudoun.The white cemetery at the Hillsboro United Methodist Church is included in that database.Heidi Siebentritt,Loudoun’s historic preservation planner,said the county is willing to map the church’s slave graves but has no immediate plan to do so.
Thompson said he’s open to talking with the county, or any organization, that could assist the church in its effort to study and recognize the graves. He added that he intends toreach out to the Freedom Center to discuss the matter.
Jagoe said that while he was glad the church is moving the project forward, he’s unsure why it’s taken 150 years to do something about it.
“When it works out, that will be great,” he said. “It’s going to get done and that’s good news.”
The 72 grave sites in Hillsboro could mark one the largest burial grounds of enslaved people in Loudoun, depending on how many enslaved people are actually buried there.
The most well-established of the slave cemeteries in Loudoun is theAfrican American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont, which was established in 2015 and contains the graves of more than 40 enslaved people at the southeastern quadrant of the Rt. 7/Belmont Ridge Road interchange.
The largest cemetery for the enslaved in the county is theTippets Hill Cemetery, where 113 people are believed to be buried next door to a data center.
In March 2018, eight graves were also discovered on the Compass Creek development in Leesburg, where the Walmart Supercenter and Ion International Training Center now sit. Thomas said when the property owners there decided to exhume those graves and send the bodies off to be analyzed, the results were inconclusive—meaning they still can’t tell whether the people buried there were black or white.
“People are shopping and [ice] skating and they have no clue of the atrocity that took place on that ground,” she said. “There’s still a story that needs to be told.”
The Town of Leesburg is also working on the Sycolin Community Cemetery, where anywhere from 40 to 100 unmarked African-American graves are located. There,Rivanna Archaeological Services is performing adelineation survey to ensure that when ownership of the site is transferred to the Loudoun Freedom Center, every grave on the site is included in the deed.
In the village of St. Louis, residents for the past three months have also pushed back on a developer’s plans to build a 30-home subdivision around a cemetery that contains at least 23 unmarked graves, but could feature dozens more.
Thomas said that aside from all of those burial sites, there are still more the Freedom Center is working to preserve.
In response to the identification of so many unmarked burial grounds in recent years, the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 17 passed a new cemetery buffering ordinance requiring developers to include a 50-foot, rather than a 25-foot, buffer between their developments and gravesites. That ordinance became county law on Nov. 21.
The county this past summer also launched an online database of more than 200 active and historic cemeteries, not just slave cemeteries, that includes links to relevant state law governing access to them. The established cemetery at the Hillsboro United Methodist Church is included in that database.
Moving forward, Jagoe said that no matter what happens in Hillsboro—whether the church commemorates the graves or the cemetery is left forever unnoticed—he’s confident of what the outcome will be.
“I’ve read [the Bible], I know how the story ends and love is going to win,” he said.