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Unknown no longer: Third annual Belmont Slave Cemetery event marks special occasion

Pastor Michelle Thomas is overwhelmed with emotion as Belmont Slave Cemetery Freedom Celebration participants pay their respects to the enslaved and a choir sings “We Will Overcome.” This is the first year the cemetery is owned by slave descendants and African-American history preservationists. Times-Mirror/Veronike Collazo
In a county overflowing with history, annual celebrations can get lost in the fold. As years go by, these events become almost landmarks themselves — known by residents, beloved yet sometimes static.

But this year’s annual Belmont Slave Cemetery Oral History Walking Tour and Wreath Laying Ceremony on Sunday was different.

It was different because for the first time, the cemetery — and those interred there — rests in the hands of those dedicated to the preservation and celebration of the land and its history.

Originally part of the Belmont Plantation, the property where the cemetery sits was up until recenlty owned by the developer Toll Brothers. After nearly three years of conversation and court proceedings, Toll Brothers transferred the deed to the Loudoun Freedom Center, an African-American historic preservation organization.

“It’s been about people, not politics,” Loudoun Freedom Center Executive Director and Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell said. “This is a moment where the past comes together to be honored by the present, and hopefully you’ll see the opportunity to continue this movement of reconciliation.”

A board of trustees organized by the Loudoun Freedom Center will now oversee the cemetery, which the group hopes to turn into a historic site for Loudoun families and other visitors to come learn about this piece of the county’s history.

Pastor Michelle Thomas, founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, led the walking tour with two stops, one to speak about the Coton Plantation, then another about the Belmont Plantation. The two plantations were owned by cousins who had 85 slaves between them, 17 at Coton and 68 at Belmont. Thomas said the Loudoun Freedom Center was able to find all of their names through historic documents.

“We know their names now, and we will recognize them and memorialize them,” Thomas said.

The two plantations would use slaves interchangeably, so it is possible some of the enslaved who worked at the Coton Plantation are buried in the Belmont Slave Cemetery, but there is possibly another slave gravesite near the Lansdowne pool, Thomas said. Some ruins of the Coton Plantation still exist in Lansdowne, and Thomas said part of the Loudoun Freedom Center’s next project will include finding the sites and recognizing them.

“These sites remain hidden in plain sight,” Thomas said. “In other words, we’ve all been to the pool at Lansdowne, and we’ve all seen these houses, we just don’t know where [the plantation and slave sites] are, we don’t know where they were, we don’t know how they were used because there’s no language. There’s no historic markers there to guide us along that story.”

Slaves lived and worked at the Coton and Belmont plantations for more than 65 years, but their contributions are not known, Thomas said. She and the Loudoun Freedom Center plan to change that.

“Historic preservation and equality must come to Loudoun,” Thomas said.

The Belmont Slave Cemetery site may have never been found had it not been for a Belmont Plantation owner who wrote about the cemetery and an adjacent schoolhouse in a deed -- even though he could have faced legal trouble since educating slaves was illegal at the time.

The remains of the school house have yet to be found, but Thomas said the Loudoun Freedom Center will work with archeologist Dr. Michael Blakey to find evidence of the historic building.

Revolutionary War Interpreter Donald Francisco played “Amazing Grace” as attendees gathered in the slave cemetery to pay their respects.

“This is a moment that before wasn’t even considered possible in our lifetimes, and here we stand today thanks to a generous gift, a generous community and a generous God,” Campbell said.

A theme of giving voices to the voiceless and bringing hidden and forgotten history to light painted the remarks of special guests. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.-10th) said the stories of the enslaved are essential in knowing Loudoun’s history. State Del. Randy Minchew (R-10th) agreed, saying that in recognizing and preserving this history, the country can move forward in reconciliation.

“We must acknowledge that the perfection of liberty is and will probably always be a work in progress in this great country. And by coming to this hallowed ground, hallowed by the memories and the labors of the people who lie here, we will be enriched and better in disposition to carry on that task," Del. Randy Minchew (R) said at the Belmont Slave Cemetery Wreath Laying Ceremony. Times-Mirror/Veronike Collazo


“We must be brutally honest, and we must never sugarcoat the lesson of history, that there was an abomination that took place in the form of human slavery in our country after those great words of Thomas Jefferson were put ink to paper,” Minchew said. “And by appreciating that truth, we can be stronger and we can be better endowed to correct it and to give appreciation to those good words.”

Event attendees laid roses at the cemetery as the Dominion High School choir sang “We Shall Overcome.” School children also read the names of all the enslaved of the Belmont Plantation.

In addition to making the site a place of history and education, the Loudoun Freedom Center has partnered with some Loudoun County Public Schools and will be displaying artifacts at Seldens Landing and Steuart Weller Elementary Schools and Dominion High School.

“I see many future generations of Loudoun County can come to this place and appreciate the real history of this place and can ask themselves the questions whether or not those words of Thomas Jefferson can be further protected, and the answer will be yes,” Minchew said. “Together, we can preserve history, perfect liberty and take great solace and great strength from the people who died here.”

Mikaeel Martinez Jaka, a member of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Boy Scout Troop, is one example of Loudoun’s youth involvement with the cemetery. Jaka announced that as his Eagle Scout service project he plans to lead an effort with the Loudoun Freedom Center to make a permanent path from Belmont Ridge Road through the cemetery for visitors to come pay their respects to the enslaved.

“Together, we must remember all those who sacrificed for our country,” Jaka said. “All the enslaved Africans sacrificed so much to build this country. Let us rededicate ourselves and honor them.”

Speakers also recognized Thomas’ efforts in acquiring the site from Toll Brothers in order to preserve and restore the cemetery. Loudoun County NAACP Chapter President Phillip Thompson credited Thomas, noting historical sites all over the county continue to be lost to development

“We’re going to struggle not just to maintain this site, but to protect other sites in Loudoun County. We can use all the help we can get,” Thompson said.

The commonwealth of Virginia also gives state funds for the care and maintenance of historic graves and cemeteries. State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33rd) said the program has long been used in the preservation of Confederate gravesites. The commonwealth recognizes 214 Confederate cemeteries, she said.

In 1992, Revolutionary gravesites were added to the list of recognized historic cemeteries in Virginia and received state funds. Just this past year, the commonwealth added two historic African-American cemeteries to the lists. Wexton said she plans to add the Belmont Slave Cemetery this upcoming legislative session.

“We all matter, living or dead,” Thomas said. “They were, because we found them. We know that’s true. They are, because their blood runs through us. We know that’s true. They will forever be, because we will forever honor them and memorialize them. Today is just the beginning.”

Pastor Michelle Thomas, left, founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, smiles as two girls read the names of slaves buried at the Belmont Slave Cemetery at the third annual walking tour and wreath laying ceremony Nov. 12. Thomas hopes the cemetery will become a place for families to visit and learn from. Times-Mirror/Veronike Collazo

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