Progress looks imminent on an agreement to transfer cemetery land from the Town of Leesburg to a local nonprofit.
Although as recently as this week the Leesburg Town Council failed to find a majority to support funds for drainage improvements at the Sycolin Cemetery site, Freedom Center Founder Michelle Thomas has indicated to town staff she soon plans to sign a memorandum of understanding between the town and the nonprofit.
For months, Thomas has implored the council to help rectify the drainage problem in the gravesite area and has previously stated that the memorandum will not be signed until that was done. The Town Council approved the transfer of the 1.6-acre cemetery land to the nonprofit on May 11, following a lengthy process begun in 2019 when the decision to transfer the land required a cemetery delineation study and survey and plat work. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors also had to approve the creation of an outlot that includes the cemetery land that would be transferred to the Freedom Center.
Land near the burial sites was purchased by the town more than 30 years ago for the federally mandated Runway Protection Zone for Leesburg Executive Airport. While the town for years had been maintaining the land around the cemetery, it came under fire several years ago from Thomas and the NAACP for the overgrown nature of the cemetery site itself. Sixty-five gravesites associated with the Sycolin Baptist Church can be found on the cemetery land, with the earliest recorded burial in 1913 and the latest in 1959. A staff report notes there is no historical research that has shown it to be a cemetery for the enslaved; however, some who are buried in the cemetery were born prior to the Civil War.
While Thomas has emphasized she does not expect the land, downslope of a steep hill near a creek and adjacent to springs, to be completely dry, she said the Freedom Center wanted the situation rectified enough so that headstones could be placed at gravesites to appropriately memorialize those buried there.
Town staff has estimated improvements by way of ditches or drains to cost from $125,000 to more than $200,000. That would be in addition to the $81,000 Leesburg has already spent on maintenance and preparing the site for transfer, including the cemetery delineation study and survey and plat work.
Loudoun Freedom Center representatives have alleged the town is to blame for some of the erosion of the area and the soggy conditions by the gravesites. Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel has stated the town has never modified the topography of the area but did provide a covering of a sand/gravel mixture on top of nearby paths in June 2018. Staff has offered to remove the path if the Freedom Center so desires.
Two attempts were made during Monday night’s council work session to find support to provide funding for the Freedom Center to address some of the drainage issues onsite. Councilwoman Suzanne Fox attempted to find council support to donate $3,300 to the Freedom Center, the in-house estimated cost of staff time spent on annual maintenance on the property.
Mayor Kelly Burk pressed her on whether that would set a precedent in spurring future council donations to town cemeteries. She alluded to a recent request of the council from a parishioner at St. James Episcopal Church to help fund the refurbishment of the church cemetery’s tombstones and landscaping, along with new signage.
“I want to acknowledge we’ve had some ownership in this. I feel like that’s the distinction,” Fox said in response.
Only Councilwoman Kari Nacy indicated support for the $3,300 donation.
Councilman Zach Cummings then proposed a grant of up to $100,000 to the Freedom Center to support drainage improvements.
“We own this land. We don’t own other cemeteries. The maintenance, although above and beyond what certain people think we should have been doing, was not efficient and effective enough to preserve a historic cemetery,” he said.
Cummings said he would prefer that the town government ask the nonprofit to send the town an invoice for work they would have done to improve drainage at the cemetery, and the town would expend up to $100,000 for reimbursement. Only Vice Mayor Marty Martinez and Councilman Ara Bagdasarian supported that request, one short of the four votes that would be necessary to pass a motion at a future meeting.
Similar overtures toward the same goal have also been proposed in previous council meetings, but none have had enough votes to move forward on awarding funding.
On Tuesday night, Ron Campbell, a former member of the Town Council and the executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, again spoke before the council during the petitioners’ section of the business meeting. In speaking to Loudoun Now earlier in the day, Campbell said he had spoken to Fox, Cummings and Bagdasarian on separate occasions, but emphasized the Freedom Center has never asked the council for a specific amount of funding.
“We talked about a path forward; we never talked about a number,” he said.
Campbell also criticized the process, or lack thereof, since talks first began about transferring the cemetery land. He said the Freedom Center had to request a deadline for response from Town Manager Kaj Dentler, and only this week saw the county’s signed plat for the first time. He also said the town had never given the memorandum of understanding document to the Freedom Center.
Markel disputed Campbell’s claims about communication between town staff and the Freedom Center. He noted the MOU was emailed to Thomas in mid-May, and copies of the plat have been provided on several occasions.
Dentler has requested a formal decision from the Freedom Center by July 30, Markel said. The signed plat from the Loudoun County Department of Building and Development approving the creation of the outlot also must be recorded within six months of its signing. If that is not done, the county process to approve the outlot would have to begin anew. The deadline for that is Oct. 21.
Thomas said she planned to sign the MOU after the next set of council meetings July 26 and 27, but emphasized the council still has the opportunity “to do the right thing” in supporting funding for improvements at the cemetery site.
“The signing of the MOU does not preclude them from at some point catching up with their moral compass,” she said.
Thomas said she hoped in the intervening week and a half that she would be able to share with the council members the site plan work on the Sycolin Cemetery currently being undertaken by students in Virginia Tech’s landscape architecture program. Perhaps seeing those plans drawn up would make it clearer to council members why they should assist with funding, she remarked.
Should the council not provide funding, Thomas expressed optimism that the Freedom Center would be able to raise the funds needed to improve conditions at the cemetery and pointed to the historic resiliency of the African American community when they have been treated unfairly.
She compared signing the MOU, without any funding provided, to a sharecropper’s agreement. Thomas had previously used the same term to describe the council’s initial decision, almost three years ago, to lease out the cemetery land to an outside group to maintain it before revisiting that decision and choosing to transfer the land altogether.
“Signing this MOU almost feels like I’m signing a sharecropper’s agreement and I can understand how our ancestors felt like when they felt they had no alternative but to sign agreements that were discriminatory in nature,” she said. “This is certainly an unfair, unjust agreement but it is what we have. We can begin to move forward to building and protecting and maintaining this sacred site or continue to fight a losing battle because of the racism that governs this board.”