Another of the county’s abandoned cemeteries is being revived as a visible and accessible part of the county’s African-American history.
The Lovettsville Historical Society is working to restore the former Mount Sinai Free Will Baptist congregation’s 30-by-30-foot cemetery located at the northeast corner of Mountain Road and Britain Road in the village of Britain, southwest of Lovettsville. There, the society has documented 30 graves, but according to Historical Society Vice President Ed Spannaus, there could be up to 100 graves in the plot that has been hidden by trees and is an “almost unknown piece of Lovettsville history,” Spannaus said.
Mount Sinai Baptist dates back to the late 1890s, when the Free Will Baptists migrated south from New England during the Civil War to educate freed slaves. One of their mission points became Harpers Ferry, about six miles from Lovettsville. There, they established Storer College. One of the college’s students was Franklin Pierce Lewis. In 1883, he began organizing a Baptist congregation in the village of Britain. What started out with six members grew to 60 members within five years.
In October 1887, the congregation celebrated the construction of its worship center. For the next three decades, the building was used as a school during the week and a church on Sundays.
“It really was a multipurpose building,” Spannaus said. “… It was a thriving community.”
From 1892 to 1897, the school had 17 to 41 students. But two decades later, in the 1920s, the congregation was disbanded. By the time World War II rolled around, the building was abandoned. And around 1980, the building burned to the ground. Today, all that remains of the Baptist congregation is the foundation of that building and an overgrown cemetery.
The first documented burial occurred in 1887. The last, in 1955. Spannaus said Historical Society members have found 12 marked graves in the cemetery, documented 30 and think there could be up to 100 people buried there. Some of those with headstones in the plot including Civil War veteran Pvt. Samuel B. Timbers, who served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry of the Union Army, and Henry Howard, one of two delegates representing Lovettsville in the 1883 mass meeting of Black community members, during which they discussed petitioning the courts for the right to serve as jurors and election officials.
“It’s quite a history of people who are buried there,” said Ron Campbell, the executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, which is working with the Historical Society on the restoration project along with the Loudoun Heritage Commission’s African American Resource Protection Subcommittee.
Now, the Historical Society—under a newly formed group named Family and Friends of Mount Sinai Cemetery—is working with those organizations to organize a volunteer effort to clear the cemetery property and mark the area to prepare it for the long-term goal: to restore the entire half-acre property and install benches, memorials and interpretive signage to “really explain the history of it,” Spannaus said.
Campbell said they’re hoping to lead the cleanup effort on April 10, weather permitting.
“It’s a beginning,” he said about the project.
Historical Society members are also hoping to eventually locate funding to pay for the use of ground-penetrating radar to identify more graves on the site. And Spannaus said there has even been interest in building a replica of the burned-down building on the site.
All that work could be funded with the help of a state grant, which Spannaus said Historical Society members are hoping the county government will help obtain. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources offers grants to help with those types of projects through its African American Cemetery & Graves Fund. The deadline to apply for that funding in the current fiscal year is May 30.
But before any of the long-term work occurs, Campbell said the organizations need to gain full control of the property, which is privately owned by someone who lives outside Loudoun. Campbell said one of the neighbors in Britain has showed some interest in purchasing the property and turning it over to one of the organizations.
“The first piece is to really look at control of the property,” Campbell said.
Spannaus said Historical Society members have also asked the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to explore the idea of appointing cemetery trustees to manage the site.
County Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) said she would not comment on the county’s involvement in the process until the Heritage Commission discussed the matter on April 5.
At that meeting, the commission voted to draft a letter to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office in support of the Historical Society’s request for the office to appoint cemetery trustees.