For hundreds of years, the Belmont Slave Cemetery off of Route 7 and Belmont Ridge Road, sat forgotten. The cemetery served as the final resting place of slaves who worked on a plantation. The site, which once stood on the Belmont Country Club lands, has continued to fall into disrepair, culminating in recent disruption by the interchange project.
For the past two and a half years, the Loudoun Freedom Center has worked to acquire the historical site from Toll Brothers, the developer who owns the land. After collaborating together with the County and Toll Brothers to to create a plan for the property transfer, the County changed that plan without speaking to the Freedom Center, the group said.
Now instead of the land being transferred from Toll Brothers, to the County to a board of trustees vetted by the Freedom Center, the County decided to start the trustee process over and open it up to the entire county. Freedom Center representatives said they felt slighted and like all the research and work they did was being discounted.
“African Americans are totally capable of taking care of this property and this process has been telling me, ‘Maybe you’re not,’ and that’s a problem,” Pastor Michelle Thomas, co-founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, said.
All parties met in the County Circuit Court July 19 where the Freedom Center contested the re-opening of the trustee process. Leesburg Town Council Member Ronald Campbell confirmed the County had never notified the the Freedom Center of the changes.
Thomas, of Holy and Whole Life Ministries, and other community stakeholders created the Loudoun Freedom Center to help identify, preserve and restore historical African American sites, especially those having to do with slaves. Thomas said one of her biggest concerns is that the county judge will appoint people who don’t understand or appreciate the value of the cemetery or how it should be restored and shared with the public.
“It’s important to remember this is property of enslaved people. These folks can’t speak for themselves and they couldn’t back in the day when they were alive,” said the Freedom Center’s counsel, Ben Leigh. “(The Freedom Center) have a right to be heard and they’re not.”
Belkys Escobar, Assistant County Attorney, said she’d invited Leigh and the Freedom Center representatives to meetings and they had not shown up. Alternatively, Thomas said she had communicated with Escobar, asking for meetings and relaying concerns the group had about restrictions placed on the property. Escobar said she never saw these emails.
Although members of the Freedom Center felt slighted and their voice was being pushed aside after nearly three years worth of work in researching the property, commemorating the enslaved and rallying the community, Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman said this was not his intention.
“My goal is to see this cemetery preserved and protected,” he said.
Plowman became involved with the project one year ago, and to him, it didn’t make sense for the County to work as a middleman in the transfer of the property, since it has no vested interest, he said. Plowman handled the transfer of other cemetery land in the past and used the open application process then, which is why he suggested this process again. Plowman was not aware of the County’s former agreement with the Freedom Center, to recommend their list of nine possible trustees.
“You made a judgement on what’s fair for the county but not what’s fair to people already involved. You interrupted the process,” Campbell said to Plowman after the hearing. “This feels very disruptive and very disingenuous. We’ve been working the hardest and are the most invested.”
Leigh said the entire conflict was caused by a breakdown in communication. Now the project needs to move forward to restore the land to a viable, historic and respectful cemetery, he said. To rectify this, Escobar proposed a meeting for all parties to sit down and go through the final plan, where the Freedom Center could also bring up their concerns and they could all work on a solution.
“All of this could have been avoided if they’d communicated in the first place,” Campbell said.
The group will go before Judge Thomas Horne again on July 12, when he will make a decision on the advertisement language. He will also make a judgement on the Freedom Center’s objections at this hearing. Interested parties will have 30 to 60 days after July 12 to express interest in being a trustee before Horne appoints five to eight people to serve on the board.
“We shouldn’t see graves in a disrespected condition,” Leigh said. “Trustees have to be committed and have a plan that won’t fail.”