By year’s end, six dozen unmarked graves in the front lawn of the Hillsboro United Methodist Church will be identified and honored after nearly 200 years.
According to a Nov. 16 statement from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, construction is set to begin on a more-than $40,000 memorial that will honor 73 people buried in unmarked graves in Hillsboro UMC’s Arnold Grove East Cemetery. The burial ground, established in 1847, contains the remains of freed and formerly enslaved people, mixed-race people, Native Americans and Europeans. The wall is being paid for by Hillsboro UMC and the Winchester UMC Board of Missions.
The memorial will feature a 65-foot long by 4-foot high stone wall. In the center of the wall, on mounted aluminum letters, words from John 1:12 will read “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of GOD.” Each grave will be marked by a 6-by-6-by-9-inch commemorative stone with a cross. Stone steps leading to a memorial garden will also be constructed.
Hillsboro UMC expects the project to complete by Dec. 31. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsidies, the congregation will host a ceremony to dedicate the memorial.
Currently, a commemorative sign is the only marker identifying the gravesite.
The drive to install a memorial was planned a few years ago when the congregation learned of the existence of the graves. But plans for the project fell through at the time. According to former pastor Mark Jagoe, some of the congregation refused to use money from the congregation’s memorial funds to pay for it. Jagoe claimed “structural racism” existed within the congregation.
Then-interim Pastor Larry Thompson denied Jagoe’s claims and noted that white people are also buried in Hillsboro UMC’s lawn alongside formerly enslaved Black people.
Last week, Jagoe said news of the project is “really wonderful” and that the memorial will be “such a blessing” for the community and its history.
“That will be great to see that happen,” he said. “It’s time that all God’s children be recognized.”
The Arnold Grove Methodist Church, now Hillsboro UMC, was constructed and established in 1835 by abolitionists when the Rev. William D. Wicks was presiding over the congregation. The Black community was invited to worship there and to bury their dead in the East Cemetery. Those graves were identified nearly 200 years later in April 2018, according to a Nov. 16 open letter from Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church Director of Connectional Ministries Rev. Dr. Steven Summers, Hillsboro UMC District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Sarah Calvert, and Hillsboro UMC Pastor Rev. Ralph Carver.
The 73 graves in Hillsboro could mark one the largest enslaved burial grounds in Loudoun, depending on how many enslaved people are actually buried there.
The most well-established of those burial sites in Loudoun is the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont, which was reclaimed from untended woodlands in 2015 and contains the graves of more than 40 formerly enslaved people at the southeastern corner of the Rt. 7/Belmont Ridge Road interchange.
The largest slave cemetery in the county is the Tippets Hill Cemetery, where 113 formerly enslaved Black people are believed to be buried next door to a data center.
The Town of Leesburg is also working on the Sycolin Community Cemetery, where anywhere from 40 to 100 unmarked graves are located. Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel said the town is still working with the county to ensure a 50-foot buffer surrounds the graves, as required by a new county ordinance passed in October 2019. Once that is complete, the town will transfer ownership of the property to the Loudoun Freedom Center—a nonprofit that aims to preserve, protect and promote Loudoun’s Black history. Markel said town staff expects that to happen in January or February.
To better inform the public of Loudoun’s many marked and unmarked burial grounds, the county government last year launched an online database featuring information on more than 200 active and historic cemeteries that includes links to relevant state laws governing access to those sites.