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After harsh words, Leesburg plans to donate African-American cemetery

The Leesburg Town Council has voted to donate the Sycolin Cemetery to the Loudoun Freedom Center, which has worked to clean up and preserve graves in the long-ignored land near Leesburg Airport. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

WASHINGTON — After years of disrepair and months of heated disagreement about who should maintain an African-American burial ground near Leesburg Airport, the future of the Sycolin Cemetery is finally more hopeful.

Leesburg, Virginia, Mayor Kelly Burk tells WTOP the town council voted unanimously Tuesday to take the next steps toward donating the cemetery to the nonprofit Loudoun Freedom Center.

In November of last year, the group’s executive director, Pastor Michelle Thomas, was critical of Leesburg’s plan to seek proposals for a group to maintain the cemetery, with a five-year lease, at the cost of one dollar a year.

At the time, Thomas was unhappy with the notion that her group could make a substantial five-year investment, but the town could decide to lease it to somebody else. She told WTOP: “The town should not be in the slaveholding business.”

“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,” Thomas had said, in November.

Thomas wanted the town to transfer the deed to her group, gratis, with the understanding the group would maintain the cemetery.

In November, Burk said the town was constrained from turning over the property to the descendants’ group because the FAA would require the town sell the land for its market value.

“That was our hold up. We thought we would have to be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to give the land away,” Burk said Thursday. “Staff continued to research and found it was much more reasonable.”

“The value is $14,000 — the original cost we paid for it,” said Burk. “It’s a cemetery, in a flood plain — there’s only so much you can do with it.”

Burk said staff is now taking steps to subdivide the land, and draw up documents to transfer the land containing the cemetery to Loudoun Freedom Center. “We will absorb the $14,000 into the budget, turn it over and the town will no longer be responsible.”

Given the prior tension, Thomas was shocked and pleased by the town’s decision to donate the land.

“I was amazed — they did a 180-degree turnaround,” Thomas told WTOP.

Thomas said she has maintained her group would provide the respect and stability for the land that contains over 40 graves of formerly enslaved people — some buried during the years of Jim Crow — and the fight for civil rights.

“Loudoun County just doesn’t have the manpower or inclination to preserve African-American history,” said Thomas. “Not only can we now save the cemetery, we also save a community’s story.”

As with the nearby Belmont Cemetery, which was transferred from the Toll Brothers development company, Thomas said her group and family members of those buried in Sycolin Cemetery “will be the narrators and protectors of the stories, ensuring they’re accurate.”

Thomas said she met Wednesday with a Loudoun County man — Paul Johnson — whose father and grandparents are buried at Sycolin Cemetery.

“I was so glad to report to him that we are starting the process,” said Thomas.

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