6-1 Vote Concludes Debate Over Preservation of African American Grave Sites

Pastor Michelle Thomas looks over historic African American gravesites in Loudoun County.

Photo by Lea Longerbeam

Pastor Michelle Thomas looks over historic African American gravesites in Loudoun County.

Written by Chris Tuttle

Following years of protest and negotiation, the The Loudoun Freedom Center, as well as many local African American groups, were met with success, after a 6-1 vote in the Leesburg Town Council rescinded a proposal leasing Sycolin Cemetery to local businesses. Instead, the historic African American gravesite will be left in the hands of the Loudoun Freedom Center (LFC).

Sycolin Cemetery, the gravesite of numerous former slaves and their descendants, was the object of controversy in Leesburg, Virginia, after the town’s request for a proposal inviting local businesses to lease the land.

The town of Leesburg originally acquired the land that housed the cemetery in 1989 with funds from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as the cemetery is located adjacent to the Leesburg Executive Airport. The new proposal would have leased the cemetery to businesses for a symbolic $1 a year for five years, with the possibility of renewing the lease afterwards. However, due to the history and heritage that underlies the land, this proposal struck a sharp chord with many people. Many local African American groups protested the proposal, likening it to sharecropper agreements under Jim Crow, and stated their wish for Leesburg to allow the nonprofit organization Loudoun Freedom Center to purchase it.

The historic value of this land was uncovered about ten years ago, when the construction manager of Loudoun County Department of General Services came upon the forgotten and unmaintained cemetery. After doing extensive genealogy research, the manager reached out to the Loudoun Freedom Center, founded by pastor Michelle Thomas, in hopes that the center would seek to save the historic land that was the final resting ground for African Americans.

According to Pastor Thomas, the mission of the Loudoun Freedom Center is to protect, preserve, and promote the history of African Americans in Loudoun County- a history that is often forgotten. Thomas described the original condition of the Sycolin Cemetery as appalling and disturbing, stating that it had been used as a “deer dump” with a pile of carcasses thrown on top of the graves.

“Somehow the town allowed it to fall into disarray,” says Thomas to the Loudoun Times Mirror. Instead of a lease, Pastor Thomas called for Leesburg to give the land to the Loudoun Freedom Center or at least give the nonprofit the opportunity to purchase it. She said she had no idea why the Town of Leesburg would want to lease the land rather than donate it.

“If the Town of Leesburg does not own any other cemeteries and they have never had a responsibility to take care of African American heritage, it makes absolutely no sense that they would be in the leasing business or cemetery business,” she states.

The initial opinion of Leesburg mayor Kelly Burk and other members of the Town Council was that the options of donation or sale were not as straightforward. Since the town acquired the land with FAA funds thirty years ago, the town was able to lease the land, but not give ownership away without reimbursing the FAA, using taxpayer dollars to do so.

“We are going to have to buy [the land] to give it,” Mayor Burk of Leesburg explained while stating that she understood where Pastor Thomas was coming from.

Interested parties were invited to share their desires with the Town Council for the Sycolin Cemetery by February 11th when the Town Council met for a Work Session to discuss the future ownership of the cemetery. At this meeting, the Leesburg Town Council voted unanimously to donate the Sycolin Cemetery and slowly began the transfer of property to the LFC. Initial concerns that the Town of Leesburg would have to reimburse the FAA for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the land were put to rest as the cemetery sits close to the runway of the Leesburg Airport and therefore is unsuited for development. The land has an estimated value of $14,000.

Pastor Thomas is thankful for this decision and is hopeful that the Sycolin Cemetery will be a historic site for years to come.

“It is only right that the descendants are able to take care of this sacred ground given the fact that the Town Council has abandoned it for thirty years,” she remarks.

In addition to the Sycolin Cemetery, the Loudoun Freedom Center manages three other African American historic gravesites in Loudoun County; Belmont Slave Cemetery in Ashburn, Tippetts Hill Cemetery in Sterling and Cool Springs Cemetery in Leesburg. These cemeteries had been in danger of being removed to give space to increasing development in a county that has seen tremendous population growth within the past few decades. The LFC fought to preserve these cemeteries on their original ground and was successful.

Photo by Sidse Tuttle
Junior Chris Tuttle visits Sycolin Cemetery.

“African Americans have been in Loudoun for a long time, but there are very few memorials or historic markers for African American historic sites,” says Pastor Thomas.

For anyone interested in getting involved with the preservation of African American history and gravesites in Loudoun County, Pastor Thomas recommends reaching out to the Black History Committee of the Thomas Balch Library which does research and sheds light on African American history Loudoun. Furthermore, the LFC currently has two high school interns on staff to help in the work to preserve local African American gravesites.