Wreath Laying, Trail Remember Enslaved at Belmont

For a fourth year, community, nonprofit, faith, and elected leaders gathered for a remembrance of those buried at the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont led by Pastor Michelle C. Thomas of the Loudoun Freedom Center.

And for the first time, a ceremony included a walk through the gravel trail laid down by Boy Scout Mikaeel Martinez Jaka and other volunteers for his Eagle Scout project.

Over several weeks in the summer, Jaka led the creation of the Journey to Freedom Heritage Trail, a 400-foot loop trail at the final resting place of more than 40 enslaved people. He organized fundraising of more than $6,000, including an anonymous $2,000 donation with the note “My ancestors were slave traders in Loudoun. I wish to make reparations.” He then led more than 100 volunteers laying out 16 tons of gravel and 800 feet of boards to line the path.

Thomas noted he did this work during Ramadan—a month of fasting in Islam.

For this work, Jaka was recognized with the World Organization of the Scout Movement’s Messengers of Peace Heroes Award, for which he was one of only 11 scouts from around the world this year and only the fifth American honoree since the award was first given in 2011. Jaka, 17, is a member of Purcellville ‘s Troop 163 and of Venturing Crew 786, chartered to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.

Jaka dedicated the trail “to the people that sacrificed everything to build America,” but he said the work is not done.

“This is not the end of that journey, nor the end of the need,” Jake said. “The beginning of one, because there is always going to be something to struggle for, a cause to support, a need for education and remembrance, healing and reconciliation. So let us all rededicate ourselves to honoring the lives of enslaved Africans across America.”

Mikaeel Martinez Jaka speaks during the dedication of the Journey to Freedom Heritage Trail and annual wreath-laying ceremony at the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont Sunday, Oct. 14. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

The ceremony also was attended by Leesburg councilmember and Loudoun Freedom Center Director Ron Campbell, Loudoun County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), state delegates Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10) and David A. Reid (D-32), state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-33), who celebrated the General Assembly’s recent decision to protect African-American cemeteries in the state code similarly to how Confederate cemeteries have been recognized for years. Belmont was the third such cemetery recognized.

Randall spoke of Thomas’s tireless efforts to tell the stories of those held in bondage, said the work must go beyond the ceremony.

“We owe them to right some of the wrongs of the past,” Randall said. “We owe them a correction of history, we owe them that. The person that got to tell the history didn’t tell it all.”

Under Thomas’s leadership, the Loudoun Freedom Center worked to develop permanent protections for the land. Many people buried there were enslaved at the nearby Belmont and Coton plantations—today’s Belmont Country Club and Lansdowne on the Potomac neighborhoods. The property has changed tremendously since the first ceremony in 2015. The property, at the southeast corner of the Rt. 7/Belmont Ridge Road intersection, was threatened by development and was among Preservation Virginia’s list of Most Endangered Historic Places.

Today, the property has seen the trail and brush clearing to make it more accessible. Thomas worked with the property’s former owners, Belmont developer Toll Brothers, to get the land’s 2.75 acres donated to the Loudoun Freedom Center.

“We are blessed,” Thomas said. “This work didn’t just happen again overnight. Many hands, many hands have come together.”

The Martinez Jaka family, Mikaeel, Priscilla, Rizwan, Raqeeb, Isfrafeel, and Jabreel, and Ibaadah stand along entrance to the Journey to Freedom Heritage Trail. Mikaeel led the creation of the trail for his Eagle Scout project, for which he was recognized with the prestigious World Organization of the Scout Movement’s Messengers of Peace Heroes Award. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

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