Progress appears imminent on an agreement to transfer the land from the cemetery in the town of Leesburg to a local nonprofit.
Although as recently as this week Leesburg city council failed to find a majority to support funds for improved drainage at the Sycolin cemetery site, Freedom Center founder Michelle Thomas told the City staff she was soon planning to sign a memorandum of understanding between the nonprofit association.
For months, Thomas begged the council to help rectify the drainage problem in the tomb area and previously said the memorandum would not be signed until it was done. City Council approved the transfer of the 1.6 acre cemetery land to the nonprofit on May 11, following a lengthy process that began in 2019 when the decision to transfer the land required study of delimitation of the cemetery, a survey and a platform work. The Loudoun County Supervisory Board also had to approve the creation of a subdivision including the cemetery land that would be transferred to the Freedom Center.
The land near the burial grounds was purchased by the city over 30 years ago for the federally mandated runway protection area for Leesburg Executive Airport. While the city had maintained the land around the cemetery for years, it was criticized several years ago by Thomas and the NAACP for the overgrown nature of the cemetery site itself. Sixty-five graves associated with the Baptist Church of Sycolin are found on the grounds of the cemetery, the first burial recorded in 1913 and the last in 1959. A staff report notes that no historical research has shown it to be buried. acted as a cemetery for the slave; however, some who are buried in the cemetery were born before the Civil War.
Although Thomas stressed that she did not expect the terrain, down a steep hill near a stream and next to springs, to be completely dry, she said the Freedom Center wanted the terrain to be completely dry. the situation is sufficiently rectified so that gravestones can be placed on the graves to commemorate appropriately those buried there.
City staff estimated that improvements with ditches or drains would cost between $ 125,000 and over $ 200,000. This would be in addition to the $ 81,000 Leesburg has already spent on maintaining and preparing the site for the transfer, including the cemetery boundary study, surveying and platform work.
Representatives of the Loudoun Freedom Center alleged the city is to blame for some of the erosion of the area and soggy conditions from the graves. Deputy general manager Keith Markel said the city never altered the topography of the area, but covered the nearby paths with a mixture of sand and gravel in June 2018.
Two attempts were made during Monday night’s council working session to find support to fund the Freedom Center to address some of the on-site drainage issues. City Councilor Suzanne Fox attempted to enlist council support to donate $ 3,300 to the Freedom Center, the internally estimated cost of staff time spent on the property’s annual maintenance.
Mayor Kelly Burk asked if this would set a precedent to spur future council donations to city cemeteries. She alluded to a recent request from a parishioner’s council of St. James’s Episcopal Church to help fund the headstones renovation and landscaping of the church cemetery, as well as new signage.
“I want to acknowledge that we have had some ownership in this area. I feel like that’s the distinction, ”Fox said in response.
Only city councilor Kari Nacy indicated her support for the $ 3,300 donation.
City Councilor Zach Cummings then offered a grant of up to $ 100,000 to the Freedom Center to support the drainage improvements.
“We own this land. We do not have any other cemeteries. Maintenance, although beyond what some people think we should have done, has not been efficient and effective enough to preserve a historic cemetery, ”he said.
Cummings said he would prefer the city government to ask the nonprofit to send the city an invoice for work it has done to improve the drainage of the cemetery, and the city would spend up to ‘to $ 100,000 for reimbursement. Only Deputy Mayor Marty Martinez and City Councilor Ara Bagdasarian supported the demand, one less of the four votes that would be needed to pass a motion at a future meeting.
Similar overtures towards the same goal have also been offered at previous board meetings, but none have had enough voice to move forward on the allocation of funds.
On Tuesday evening, Ron Campbell, former city council member and executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, again addressed council during the petitioners section of the business meeting. Talking to Loudoun now Earlier today, Campbell said he spoke to Fox, Cummings and Bagdasarian on several occasions, but pointed out that the Freedom Center never asked the council for a specific amount of funding.
“We talked about a way forward; we never talked about a number, ”he said.
Campbell also criticized the process, or the lack of it, since talks began about moving the land from the cemetery. He said the Freedom Center should seek a response time from general manager Kaj Dentler, and that this week alone, the county signed the plaque for the first time. He also said the city never handed over the memorandum of understanding to the Freedom Center.
Dentler requested a formal decision from the Freedom Center by July 30, Markel said. The signed plaque from the Loudoun County Construction and Development Department approving the creation of the subdivision must also be registered within six months of signing. If this is not done, the county’s process for approving the subdivision will have to start over. The deadline for this is October 21.
Thomas said she plans to sign the memorandum of understanding after the next round of council meetings on July 26-27, but stressed that the council still has an opportunity to “do the right thing” by supporting funding for improvements to the cemetery site.
“The signing of the MoU does not prevent them from catching up with their moral compass at some point,” she said.
Thomas said she hoped within a week and a half that she would be able to share with council members the work on the Sycolin Cemetery site plan currently being undertaken by students in the architecture program. landscape by Virginia Tech. Perhaps seeing those plans worked out would make it more clear to board members why they should help with the funding, she noted.
If the council does 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 highlighted the historic resilience of the African American community when was treated unfairly.
She compared the signing of the MOU, without any funding, to a sharecropper agreement. Thomas had previously used the same term to describe the council’s initial decision, almost three years ago, to lease the cemetery land to an outside group to maintain it before revisiting that decision and choosing to transfer the land completely. .
“Signing this MOU almost feels like signing a sharecropper agreement and I can understand how our ancestors felt when they felt they had no choice but to sign agreements of a discriminatory nature.” , she said. “It’s certainly an unfair and unfair deal, but that’s what we have. We can begin to move forward in the construction, protection and maintenance of this sacred site or continue to fight a losing battle because of the racism that governs this council. “