As Loudoun’s growth continues at a rapid pace, government staffers, local historians and community stakeholders are trying to work just as quickly to take inventory of all the burial sites in the 262-year-old county.
For some, the process of identifying, studying and preserving Loudoun’s burial sites started long before a Board of Supervisors initiative to create a database of active and inactive cemeteries, which is well underway.
Historian Wynne Saffer’s interest in historic cemeteries sprang from delving into genealogy in the 1980s, which led to him tracing his own ancestors to a historic cemetery in southeastern Loudoun. He also served on a committee of the Loudoun Preservation Society when the General Assembly was considering more protection of cemeteries was needed, and he chaired a Thomas Balch Library committee on historic cemeteries. While on the Balch committee, he worked closely with former Loudoun County mapping director Larry Stipek to inform him of any burial sites the committee discovered, which Stipek would then mark in the county’s GIS system. Saffer continues to serve on the library’s Loudoun Historic Cemetery Committee, one of several major contributors to the countywide database effort.
Saffer’s research on historic cemeteries over the years has illustrated what makes the exhaustive process of cataloguing all of Loudoun’s burial sites a difficult process. In some cases, even without the encroachment of development, they are all but disappearing.
Prior to the 1880s, many people were buried in family cemeteries, with grave markers in varying condition. While mostly marble and granite were used for grave markers, in many cases the materials did not withstand the elements.
“We have only about three or four graves in Loudoun that have tombstones that date prior to 1800, from the 1700s. I think that has to do with the availability of markers and stone carvers to carve the inscription. In the Lovettsville area, there’s some slate markers; that was very common in New England. The slate does something they call exfoliate, it breaks off in layers if you carve an inscription and over time starts breaking. That also contributes to the lack of early markers. If they used wooden markers, they would just rot away. We didn’t have wood like cypress that would last for a long time, so that would eliminate a lot of the earlier markers,” he explained.
Fieldstone markers, sometimes placed at both the top and foot of the grave, were also used. While they did not always display the name of the deceased, even today the presence of fieldstone can be an indication of the presence of a burial site.
As families moved out of the area, many of the family cemeteries were not maintained. The practice of using church and community cemeteries became more prevalent in the late 1800s as family cemeteries fell out of favor, Saffer said.
Pastor Michelle C. Thomas, of the Loudoun Freedom Center, has been one of the most vocal crusaders in working to preserve African American burial sites in Loudoun. She describes the rush to identify all the historic cemeteries as a race against the clock.
“Because we don’t have a cemetery database that is online, it is hard to capture a lot of these sites and you end up missing them. We end up having cemeteries paved over, built over and they’re lost forever. More times than not, that’s going to happen on African American sites. It’s a sad state of affairs,” she said.
Thomas urges the creation of a task force primarily for the identification and preservation of African American cemeteries. That’s part of the mission of the Loudoun Freedom Center, which uses as its guide a map of African American historic communities in Loudoun.
“There are four things that are a part of every African American community. Normally you’re going to find a church, a school, a cemetery, and a housing site. In some areas we’ve found two out of four or one out of four. The challenge is to find all those sites. If you can find a church, you can often find a burial ground,” she said.
There have been several noteworthy examples in recent history of how either local government or developers deal with the preservation of African American cemeteries. Thomas refers to the Belmont cemetery, near the Rt. 7/Belmont Ridge Road interchange, as the “utopia of what can happen” when developers, the descendant community and county leaders work together. On the flip side, Thomas has been sharply critical of how the Town of Leesburg has handled the Sycolin Cemetery site near the Leesburg Airport, at one time comparing the town’s plan to lease the property to an outside organization as a “sharecropper’s agreement.”
She sees more obstacles ahead until there is a formal process in place to identify African American burial sites.
“We’re going to have an issue until we have a process,” Thomas said.
Historian Larry Roeder, also has taken an interest in identifying historic cemeteries. Roeder has focused much of his research on historic cemeteries in the South Riding area, even offering information for the public on how to embark on self-guided tours of some of the sites.
Roeder’s current project is working to identify the graves of African American veterans, many of whose burial sites are not as well maintained or recognized as their white veteran counterparts. While it’s relatively easy to pull up a list of all the Loudoun black veterans who have served, finding where they are buried can be a much greater challenge. He is hoping to use the upcoming warmer months, and some dedicated volunteers, to make him make inroads in that effort.
For years individuals like Saffer, Thomas and Roeder have been alone in their interest in preserving cemeteries. But now with the focus of the greater county government, Roeder said, “It’s heartwarming people are starting to take an interest in this.”
“It’s important because people care about ancestry, care about history of the county. If you bulldoze a cemetery, we’re really losing our history and showing a great deal of disrespect for the dead. The black community has disproportionately suffered, but everyone suffers,” for losing that part of the county’s history, he says.
Jennifer Worcester Moore, executive director of the Mosby Heritage Area and current chairwoman of the Loudoun Historic Cemetery Committee, said that county staff has already verified the coordinates of well over 200 cemeteries in Loudoun in putting together the vast database. She’s excited about the end result.
“The idea is that the list has already been and is continuing to be compared against the list on Balch’s website to make sure all the cemeteries are accounted for and documented. It’s also been compared against the master list of historic cemeteries under the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The end result will be a map available on the county’s website where people can click on a map of a cemetery in their area, it will have the history of the cemetery and additionally each map will have the capacity for folks who are out hiking, or bought a new property to take a picture and upload it on this website for the county staff to go out and ground truth it and research it. It’s also a mechanism for collecting more research on the cemeteries we didn’t really catalog,” she said.
She is also following closely a Zoning Ordinance Amendment that would increase buffering and screening requirements for cemeteries, something the Loudoun County Heritage Commission, another stakeholder in the cemetery identification process, recently weighed in on.
Kristin Brown, from the county Office of Mapping and GIS, has been one of the primary county employees tasked with compiling the database. While not ready to share a final number on how many historic cemeteries there are in the county, she said she’s found more than she had initially expected. Once implemented, she says she believes the database will be a valuable asset for the county.
“The Board of Supervisors was very forward-thinking,” in starting this initiative, she said. “This will be a good tool for planning and preservation.”