The Loudoun Freedom Center has big plans for its African-American cemeteries in Leesburg and Ashburn, and local elected officials got an initial look at those plans during a virtual meeting last week.
Two undergraduate students in Virginia Tech’s Landscape Architecture Program were the creative forces behind the master plans, which envision both creating new spaces for the future, while respecting the current gravesites, many of which have been there for centuries. According to Virginia Tech program chair Terry Clements, students Jacob Morris and Megan Lester received a “crash course on cemetery history” for most of their summer vacation. The two undertook the cemetery master plans as self-directed study projects to fulfill their graduation requirements.
“I think you’ll agree we did not take the easy routes,” Clements said.
Morris put together the master plan for Sycolin Cemetery, while Lester oversaw plans for Belmont Cemetery for the Enslaved.
Located off Sycolin Road near the Leesburg Executive Airport, the land was purchased by the town for for its federally mandated Runway Protection Zone more than 30 years ago. A transfer of that land to the Freedom Center is still waiting to be finalized. Some updates recently proposed by Freedom Center founder Michelle Thomas will need to be memorialized in the pending Memorandum of Understanding between the nonprofit and the Town Council, which is expected to come back up for discussion at a September meeting, according to Leesburg Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel.
In presenting his plans for Sycolin Cemetery, Morris said one of the goals, in working with the Freedom Center, was to have the site ready for new burials, from traditional burial plots to areas for cremains. The plans call for around 60 new plots; a scatter garden and columbarium; a wall of ancestors recognizing those who are buried in the cemetery and major family names associated with Sycolin Cemetery; and an amphitheater to host larger events, like celebrations of life, funeral services, or even field trips.
Acknowledging the steep topography of the cemetery site, Morris said they hope to add a paved pathway to make it easier for visitors to walk down to the burial sites, or to wheel a casket down to the area. Both the northern and southern entrances are proposed to remain and the Freedom Center now favors keeping both of the existing trails through the property.
The major theme behind plans for the Belmont cemetery, Lester said, is “connection to past and present.” Plans include four major conceptual areas—past life, contemporary life, past burials, and contemporary burials.
The past life area includes exhibits not just on African American history and how they would have lived but also a little bit of what it would have been like at Belmont Plantation, Lester said. The area includes a gathering space, demonstration gardens, barbecue area to allow for social gatherings, and an interpretive education area, including a schoolhouse and cabins representing where enslaved people lived. The gardens will feature produce that would have been grown on the plantation, and food that enslaved people would have grown for sustenance, she said.
The contemporary life area will provide a connection to nearby retail and housing, as well as to the planned Loudoun Freedom Center building.
The past burial area will be maintained with the existing gravesites and a memorial to the enslaved. Thomas’ son Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas is buried in the area connecting contemporary burials and past burials, and plans are for Thomas and her husband to be buried there in the future, Lester said.
Up to 40 new burials sites are envisioned in the contemporary burial area, Lester said, including a scatter garden and cremation walls.
Thomas said creating new burial areas in African American cemeteries was of critical importance. Church cemeteries are an option for those who are members of a church, but are quickly running out of space, she said. Other cemeteries, particularly those that have past ties to the Confederacy, are not welcoming for many, she said. Belmont and Sycolin represent two areas where they can be buried among their ancestors, she said.
Thomas put legislators and their aides in attendance for the virtual meeting on notice that the Freedom Center would be calling on them for help in removing roadblocks to allow for future burials in the historic cemeteries. She harkened back to her experience in burying her teenage son, when she needed permission from the Board of Supervisors to do so because Belmont Cemetery had a historic, not modern, use.
“There are some things we can do on the state side, some things that need to happen on the local side, but it all revolves around zoning and uses for historic cemeteries,” she said. “All historic cemeteries, in particular African American cemeteries, should have a use that is current and modern, and should never lose their usage of being a sacred burial ground. That is where some of the legislative challenges will be. If we can make that a state issue we do it one time and have all of it done. If not, every African American group, group by group, city by city, county by county, will have to go through a process to make sure the current use matches the historic use.”