The Leesburg Town Council has approved the transfer of cemetery land to the Loudoun Freedom Center, but the nonprofit is hoping council members revisit that decision and also pay for drainage improvements before the property changes hands.
The unanimous decision Tuesday night means that once the Freedom Center signs the Memorandum of Understanding, it will be the owner of the 1.6-acre land that includes the Sycolin Cemetery. But that MOU looks to be in jeopardy, with Michelle Thomas, the nonprofit’s founder, stating that the Loudoun Freedom Center will not sign the document until the town completes drainage improvements on the cemetery land.
The transfer of cemetery land between the town and the Loudoun Freedom Center has been in the works since 2019, following several debates on what to do with the land before the council ultimately decided an outside entity was a better choice to maintain it than the municipal government. The land includes 65 gravesites associated with the Sycolin Baptist Church, with the earliest recorded burial in 1913 and the latest in 1959. According to a staff report, there is no historical research that has shown it to be a cemetery for the enslaved; however, some who are buried in the cemetery were born prior to the Civil War.
Land near the burial sites was purchased by the town more than 30 years ago for the federally mandated Runway Protection Zone for the Leesburg Executive Airport. While the town has mowed and maintained the upper field of the area since its acquisition, it was not until 2015 that town staff ventured farther into the wooded area—outside of the Runway Protection Zone—to begin to maintain the land that includes the burial areas after receiving criticism from members of the community, particularly the NAACP, on its overgrown nature.
While town staff and the Loudoun Freedom Center—which has been behind several efforts to preserve African American gravesites in Loudoun County —have been working cooperatively to hash out the details of the MOU and land transfer, the one sticking point remained this week, and could end up bringing the subject back before the council to revisit Tuesday’s decision. Thomas had implored the council to rectify the drainage problem in the gravesite area, with town staff estimating fixes by way of ditches or drains to cost from $125,000 to more than $200,000. That would be in addition to the $81,000 Leesburg has already spent on maintenance and preparing the site for transfer, including a cemetery delineation study and survey and plat work.
Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel said water ponding was attributable to the natural topography of the cemetery land, with gravesites located downslope of a steep hill near a creek, soil conditions with poor drainage, and nearby springs that keep some areas of the land constantly wet. The town had never modified the topography of the area, he said, but did provide a covering of a sand/gravel mixture on top of nearby paths that could be removed.
Bill Ackman, director of the town’s Department of Plan Review, told the council Tuesday night that the best way to remediate the ponding would be to return the land to its “natural features.”
“Take the gravel and sand out [of the path covering], and restore it to plant material. Give it a year or two and nature will restore it to what it was,” he said.
Thomas said she did not expect town staff to be able to make the cemetery land completely dry, but wanted the situation rectified enough so that headstones could be placed at gravesites to appropriately memorialize who was buried there. She asked the council to support funding a drainage mitigation system.
“If you owned this property for 32 years at least you could’ve preserved it properly, and you didn’t do that and you need to own that,” she said.
Thomas also spoke to comments made by council members in a previous news article about setting a precedent if the town funded drainage work on the cemetery land.
“The only precedence you’re going to set is the precedence of equality. You don’t own another cemetery. Doing the right thing only sets the precedent that the town can be trusted to do the right thing,” she said. “It’s an undue and unfair burden to put this on the backs of the Loudoun Freedom Center for work that should have been done to preserve this space properly.”
Councilman Zach Cummings attempted to find support for an amendment to the motion to approve the MOU and the land transfer ordinance that would have funded drainage improvement projects on the cemetery site, at a cost not to exceed $150,000. Only Vice Mayor Marty Martinez and Councilwoman Suzanne Fox supported that amendment.
Ultimately, the motion that passed included Councilman Ara Bagdasarian’s suggestion to remove the northern trail on the property, allowing it to go back to its natural state and hopefully rectifying some of the ponding issues.
Markel said Wednesday the staff will remove the path once the Loudoun Freedom Center signs the MOU, and estimates the work will take about a day.
But Thomas said Wednesday the nonprofit has no intention of signing the MOU until the drainage improvements are made. She called the council’s decision Tuesday to transfer the land without the improvements a “sharecropper’s agreement 2.0” and said it was a case of “preservation injustice.”
“What [sharecropper’s agreements] all have in common, no matter the different stipulations or situations, is they are one-sided. They have a disproportionate advantage to the oppressor and a disadvantage to those who are oppressed,” she said.
Thomas had also previously compared the council’s consideration of leasing out the cemetery land to an outside group for maintenance to a sharecropper’s agreement, a plan the council abandoned at the end of 2018 before pursuing the land transfer to the Loudoun Freedom Center.
Thomas said she planned to rally the community to encourage the council to rescind its Tuesday night decision, and hoped to bring forth more cultural awareness of the importance of preserving the African American cemetery. She said it was unfair to ask the Loudoun Freedom Center to fund the expenses of drainage improvements at the site, and charged that if the land in question was a white cemetery that the council would not have hesitated in funding the improvements.
“The African American community cannot incur this moral and financial debt,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a matter of misunderstanding, miseducation, willful neglect or willful ignorance,” on the part of the council. Thomas also charged that a majority of the council members had never even visited the cemetery site, a statement disputed by some of those on the dais, and said because of that “they are voting on something they don’t even know.”