At Belmont Slave Cemetery, Giving Names to the Forgotten

At Belmont Slave Cemetery, Giving Names to the Forgotten
A.D. Carter (back), Michelle Thomas (left) and Sheila Coates lay a wreath as part of a ceremony at the Belmont Slave Cemetery on Nov. 6

More than 200 years ago, Loudoun County slaves toiled as property, unable to make their own decisions. They lived and died, often in anonymity, usually in unmarked graves, forgotten by the present. Many of their resting places have gone unmarked, then covered up by the county’s rapid development.

Thanks to the efforts of several present day county residents, at least one more of these resting places can be preserved. And for men and women interred at the Belmont Slave Cemetery now, at least, they have their names.

On Nov. 6, Pastor Michelle Thomas of Holy and Whole Church was joined by several elected officials, faith leaders and more than 100 members of the community for a wreath laying ceremony and dedication of the Belmont Slave Cemetery near Lansdowne. Thomas spent more than 100 hours digging through historical records, wills, deeds, judgements and inventory lists to identify at least 111 names of former slaves believed to be buried at Belmont or the nearby former Coton plantation.

“They are no longer unknown. We know exactly who they were,” Thomas said.

In addition to a formal wreath laying near the burial site and a military tribute, several Loudoun students read the names of the deceased aloud. Along with remarks and a benediction from Thomas, All Dulles Area Muslim Society chaplain Joshua Salaam and Evergreen United Methodist Church pastor Chip Giessler also spoke on God’s love and the important of remembrance.

Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, Loudoun NAACP president Phillip Thompson and Fred Snowden of the Loudoun Freedom Center also addressed the crowd.

“Other people have done history in Loudoun County, and that’s good, but Pastor Michelle has given them a voice,” Randall said. “That’s not the same thing as telling their story. She’s trying to give them dignity.”

The Loudoun Freedom Center is an organization lead by Thomas, Snowden, Leesburg resident Ron Campbell and others to preserve historical sites in the county, particularly the many neglected slave and African American history sites in Loudoun. The group is hoping to raise money for a new permanent facility as well as further preservation efforts for historical lands in the area.

The slaves interred at Belmont belonged to Thomas Lee, a former Virginia governor who died in 1749 with more than 2,000 acres of property in what is now Loudoun County, said historian Eugene Scheel, who spoke on the history of Belmont during the event.

Much of the surrounding property was owned by his relatives, and they would illuminate the pathways with lamps between the two major plantation homes during social gatherings. As part of its ongoing preservation efforts, the Freedom Center is rededicating the pathway, located along the intersection of present day RT. 7 and Belmont Ride Rd., as the Lansdowne Freedom Trail.

“History belongs to those who are careful enough to preserve it,” Thomas said. “If we do not preserve this history we will lose it.”

As part of the county’s rapid development, many historical sites have been overlooked or neglected in favor of construction. Previously, Scheel said the Virginia Highway Department wanted to build a massive over change around the burial plot, which, with help of supporters and other historians, was able to get changed. The preservation of this plot of land has taken extra importance when recently Thomas and other community stakeholders noticed that construction work was infringing on the cemetery.

Through the efforts of Thomas and the Freedom Center, there has been an increased awareness of the cemetery and community stakeholders continue to try to work with the county to properly protect the cemetery. For now the interred rest in peace – and the world will know their names.