Thomas Calls Out County for Lackluster Preservation of Historic African American Sites

Thomas Calls Out County for Lackluster Preservation of Historic African American Sites

Belmont Country Club is a Loudoun County landmark.  Belmont Manor, which serves as the community’s clubhouse, hosts events year-round and draws guests from all over. Now, the resting place of the slaves who built and worked at the original manor is being disturbed by construction around the interchange on Belmont Ridge Rd. and Route 7, as was called out by local community leaders this week.

“Slaves built that plantation, they worked on that plantation and they were laid to rest on that plantation,” Pastor Michelle Thomas of Loudoun’s Holy and Whole Life Changing Ministries said Oct. 26. “And they deserve to be remembered on that plantation.”

The Belmont Slave Cemetery has been a part of Loudoun County for nearly 200 years. The cemetery was sheltered by trees, and like many historic African American sites in the county, went undisturbed for years.  This changed once construction of the interchange began this year.

Thomas said there are approximately 50 graves in the cemetery that can be identified without using ground-penetrative radar. If the site is examined with the radar, Thomas expects the accounting of the number of slaves buried there to double.

For the past two years, Thomas has worked to get the site identified as historic and protected by the county. The cemetery is property of the Toll Brothers development company. but Thomas and the Loudoun Freedom Center have been working to purchase the land where the cemetery sits.

“They were wiping their behinds and leaving the dirty tissues,” Thomas continued. “It’s an environmental hazard and one of the most disrespectful things you could do.”

The site was supposed to be protected from the Belmont/Route 7 construction, but ground has been disturbed right up to the sediment fence on the side of the dry pond.  The temporary contractor fence has deteriorated over the past year and contract workers have been relieving themselves in the cemetery, Thomas said.

“They were wiping their behinds and leaving the dirty tissues,” Thomas continued. “It’s an environmental hazard and one of the most disrespectful things you could do.”

With the tree line removed up to the fence, this also leaves the cemetery open to erosion from the elements. A pond that was once on the site has dried up and filled with sediment from the construction.

The expectation of stakeholders invested in the preservation of the historic cemetery was that the county would be watching over the construction to make sure the site would not be impacted, Thomas said. Instead, construction workers did as they pleased, not even knowing the site was there.

Thomas and the Loudoun Freedom Foundation want to make sure any damage done to the site is taken care of by the contractor responsible.

“They want to quickly transfer the deed to the trustees without addressing the damage that’s been done to the property since we originally started this negotiation,” Thomas said.

Thomas asserts that too many African American historic resources in the county have been lost over the years, largely because of the county’s lack of initiative to preserve these sites.

I think this (Belmont Slave) cemetery deserves the same amount of honor, respect and memorialization as the Union Cemetery or Balls Bluff Cemetery,” Thomas said.

Thomas also noted the contrast between the lack of preservation of African American historical sites and the meticulous preservation of Civil War sites. There is a clear difference between the preservation projects, Thomas said.

“The idea of preservation equality is something we have to deal with in Loudoun County because the way Balls Bluff is preserved, cared for and celebrated is very different from what you see for some other historic sites.  I think this (Belmont Slave) cemetery deserves the same amount of honor, respect and memorialization as the Union Cemetery or Balls Bluff Cemetery,” Thomas said.

The county had a survey of African American Historic Sites done in 2003.  It mostly focused on sites in western Loudoun and has not been updated since then. Loudoun County NAACP president Phillip Thompson said he’d like to see a second survey of historical sites done in the near future.

Other sites in the county have been impacted by development too, Thompson said. Some of these include the Stone Slave Quarters in Leesburg, the Union Street School in Leesburg, sites by Dulles Airport, and sites in Aldie and the historic St. Louis community.

“Development is happening so fast it makes it hard to determine what’s there,” Thompson said. “Without a survey we’re going to lose these sites before we can identify them.”

More recently identified sites must be added too, such as the Ashburn Colored School that is being restored by the Loudoun Gifted School, Thompson said.

Historical sites like slave quarters, old schoolhouses, businesses, homes and cemeteries have been lost in other parts of Northern Virginia, but if they can be preserved and protected here, people from all over would come to see these pieces of history, Thompson said. He’s noticed a renewed interest in African American history, and Loudoun County has plenty of this history to share. However, it must be identified and preserved before irreparable damage is done to sites like the Belmont Slave Cemetery or Stone Slave Quarters.

Although Thomas is passionate about the preservation project, she stresses that it is not a personal project, or a project for the church or a specific group. The project would benefit all county residents.

“This is for those enslaved individuals,” Thomas said. “We’re in such a divisive time in America, it would be great if the community would come and celebrate hope, healing and heritage together by restoring this cemetery.”