Pastor says Leesburg ‘in slaveholding business’ by leasing historic cemetery

LEESBURG, Va. — A long-ignored African-American burial ground is the subject of an emotional disagreement over who should maintain the cemetery located near the Leesburg Airport in Virginia.

“The Sycolin Cemetery is a historically segregated cemetery that contains over 40 graves of (formerly enslaved people and some buried during the years) of Jim Crow, and (the fight for) civil rights,” said Pastor Michelle C. Thomas, of The Loudoun Freedom Center.

The cemetery was built in approximately 1890, and belonged to what is now the First Baptist Church Sycoline.

In 1989 the town of Leesburg bought an eight acre chunk of land along Sycolin Road, to satisfy Federal Aviation Administration requirements for a buffer zone near the airport, so a pilot of a plane could land in an emergency.

However, in 2016, Thomas and her group approached the town about preserving the cemetery, which was located in an uncared-for wooded area.

Earlier this year, four hunters were charged with dumping deer carcasses on the wooded church property, a few hundred yards from the cemetery..

Thomas and her group already care for two other African-American cemeteries in Loudoun County: one at the intersection of Belmont Ridge Road and Route 7 and another on Cool Spring Farm.

Thomas expressed anger at the Leesburg Town Council’s vote to seek proposals for an outside group to maintain the cemetery, with a five-year lease, at the cost of one dollar a year.

“The African-American community still continues to be in bondage to big government, to the powers-that-be, to corporations, and in this case we are continuing to be in bondage to the town of Leesburg,” said Thomas.

Thomas wants the town to transfer the deed to her group, gratis, with the understanding her group will maintain the cemetery.

“All of the African American burial grounds will be best served in the hands of the African-American community that love them most and will dedicate their time to their upkeep,” she said.

“The town should not be in the slaveholding business,” said Thomas. “Release the remains of the enslaved to their descendants, and let us take care of them.”

Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk told WTOP the town is constrained from simply turning the property over to the descendents’ group.

“The FAA helped pay for a good part of the land — 90-some percent, so the FAA still controls it, because it’s still in the protection zone,” said Burk.

“While (the cemetery) could be carved out, perhaps, the problem is the FAA will require the town sell the land for its market value,” Burk said.

Thomas said the deed to the Belmont Cemetery was transferred from the Toll Brothers development company. She wants a similar arrangement with the Sycolin site.

“We’re not asking for any additional land, just the burial ground,” said Thomas. “And we have to be able to access that buffer zone (to get to the burial site).”

Burk said the town has not done an assessment on the property to determine its market value. She said the land could not be developed upon, as part of the FAA requirements.

Thomas said the town has failed to maintain the property since 1989, and would want Leesburg to pay to bring the property up to an acceptable condition.

Despite the nominal cost of the lease, Thomas said the short-term arrangement would put her group at financial risk.

“You could make a five-year investment, and then the town could decide to lease it to someone else. We need a permanent solution,” Thomas said.

“This is the burial ground of enslaved persons, and I believe that they have paid their debt to society,” said Thomas, in making her argument for a deed transfer. “Our descendant community should not be strapped with debt to take care of our ancestors.”

Thomas said she is hopeful to hold an in-person meeting with Burk in the next few weeks.

“Just like Moses said to Pharaoh, it’s time to ‘let my people go,’” said Thomas.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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