Michelle Thomas, founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, formally signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the nonprofit and the Town of Leesburg on Monday to transfer the Sycolin Cemetery land to the nonprofit.
Although the Town Council approved the land transfer in May, the agreement remained unsigned by the Freedom Center as the nonprofit sought financial concessions from the town to improve drainage on the cemetery site, and also tweaked some plans to do away with removing a trail on the land. After months of back and forth, a council majority ultimately supported a $25,740 grant to the Freedom Center in July to put toward work needed on the cemetery land.
Located along Sycolin Road near the Leesburg Executive Airport,the 1.6-acre burial ground includes 65 gravesites associated with the Sycolin Baptist Church, with the earliest recorded burial in 1913 and the latest in 1959. The town purchased the land more than 30 years ago for the federally mandated Runway Protection Zone for the airport. 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.
Council members considered several options for the land, including leasing it out to a group for maintenance, but ultimately decided that an outside group was a better option to own and manage the site than the town government.
Over the summer, Freedom Center representatives unveiled plans put together by students at Virginia Tech’s Landscape Architecture Program to better preserve the burial area, and even to add additional gravesites to the land.
With the agreement now signed, Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel said several steps remain. The town staff will move forward with recording the subdivision plat, officially creating a new lot. The town is waiting on Federal Aviation Administration approval for the land transfer, which is expected soon, he added.
“Once we have that, we will have both the town and the Loudoun Freedom Center sign the deed of gift… that will fully convey the land to the Loudoun Freedom Center’s ownership,” Markel said.
He added that the town would continue to maintain the burial sites until the land transfer is complete, and thereafter will continue to mow and maintain the upper fields and access from Sycolin Road.
Thomas said she was thrilled to be able to move forward and believes the land transfer will be a great move both for the Town of Leesburg and the community at large.
“As I was signing [the MOU] my heart was beating so fast. I felt the energy of the ancestors dancing through my fingers as I was signing my name, but I did it in love for them,” she said.