A nearly three year effort to have the Belmont Slave Cemetery property transferred to a board of trustees will culminate in an October 4 hearing date.
The process began when the Loudoun Freedom Center, a nonprofit that seeks to identify, preserve and restore historic African American sites, learned of the cemetery which had been under Toll Brother’s ownership for years. The Freedom Center, headed by Holy and Whole Life Ministries’ Pastor Michelle Thomas, then worked with the County and Toll Brothers on an agreement to transfer the land.
The Freedom Center raised awareness for the site and undertook research which helped to find living descendants of some of the slaves buried on the land. The center created a list of recommended trustees made up of community members with a vested interest in restoring the cemetery. Center representatives understood Toll Brothers and the County would recommend the trustees to a judge when it came time to appoint. Last month, they learned the plan had changed.
“For two and a half years, Toll Brothers had been working, in good faith, with me and the county. So it’s ironic that we’ve gotten to this place where they decided to insert the Commonwealth’s Attorney and go off course,” Thomas said. “They did not mention that this process has been partially completed through the county. So why we’re doing a re-do and why our county’s work isn’t good enough, I still have that in question.”
The County turned the process over to the Commonwealth, represented by Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman. Plowman, who was previously involved in the transfer of cemetery land, filed a motion to open the trustee application process to the public. Members of the Freedom Center’s initiative felt this motion ignored their efforts. They still have not received an explanation on why the process was changed.
“(Toll Brothers) didn’t explain why and they don’t have to, they’re the land holders. So they have a moral obligation, but you can’t expect a moral obligation to be fulfilled from someone who has abandoned this cemetery for over 20 years,” Thomas said. “They had it for 20 years and abandoned it, so I don’t expect, morally, anything from them.”
Ten members filed a motion for the court to intervene and consider the vetted trustee suggestions the center made. Their counsel, Ben Leigh, argued these ten individuals should have the opportunity to dialogue with the court and advise on who should have stewardship because of the amount of research the group has put in. He said the group had identified descendants of the slaves buried in the cemetery which gave them higher legal standing.
Plowman disputed the claim, saying he didn’t think the group had special legal standing and he had not been aware of living descendants. Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne denied the group’s motion. He will instead hear arguments from both sides on October 4, in a different suit filed by the Freedom Center as a legal entity, instead of as ten individuals.
“An intervention says that otherwise, justice can’t be done and that’s not the case,” Plowman said.
Thomas later said the descendants have been listed in multiple proclamations and have therefore been part of public record.
“You have to care enough to find that information,” Thomas said.
In the meantime, the trustee process has been reopened and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney will be collecting applications of interested parties. Plowman said both sides want what’s best for the cemetery and he does not want to exclude anyone. He wants everyone’s input, including that of the petitioners.
The courtroom gallery was filled with a diverse crowd, interested in the cemetery’s preservation and restoration. Thomas addressed the group after the hearing:
“Sometimes when you’re dealing with hard issues and issues of racism, it can be very divisive, but this issue is uniting Loudoun rather than dividing it,” Thomas said. “We have democrats and republicans in the trenches fighting together, that feel equally as horrible about it and that’s a good thing. We have Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all in the trenches together, so that’s a beautiful thing.”
Thomas noted the list of potential trustees the Freedom Center came up with have already been vetted and have stellar credentials. She told the group that if they are interested in applying, they should do so, as it is an open process. If they are not interested, she appreciates the continued support and turnout to hearings.
“All of you are encouraged to apply to become a trustee if that is your heart’s work. If it’s not your heart’s work, just come here and sit here with us,” she said. “We will work with whoever becomes a trustee.”