A historic burial ground dating back to the late 1700s could be moved as part of the Compass Creek development in Leesburg.
Developer Peterson Companies has filed with the Loudoun County Circuit Court to disinter the eight graves. Company representatives attended a public forum on the issue Monday night.
Loudoun residents filled a meeting room at the Thomas Balch Library and overwhelmingly voiced opposition to removing the graves and any further development that would disturb the grave site.
The cemetery is part of what used to be Cool Springs Farm. The northern part of the site has been cleared and is under development. Walmart is an anchor of the project, and an ice rink facility will also eventually sit on the property.
A representative with Peterson Companies told the crowd that there were not yet plans to develop on the land where the cemetery rests, but forum attendants were skeptical. Though speakers associated with the project could not definitively say who rests in the cemetery, members of historic preservation groups say it is likely the remains of enslaved workers.
Loudoun Freedom Center Director of Research Fred Snowden said many state laws are antiquated, which is why the process feels backwards with the development company filing a petition to move the graves and then gathering public input. He said those passionate should work to have the laws rewritten.
“Cemeteries everywhere, and especially those that inter the formerly enslaved African-Americans are not given the consideration under the law that they should be, and that has got to change,” Snowden said. “I can’t keep walking on sites like Coton Plantation where the slave cemetery now is underneath the swimming pool. I can’t keep going onto sites like Cool Springs where too much has been done and can’t be undone.”
Peterson Companies has hired Thunderbird Archaeology to assess the site. Manager of Archaeology Boyd Sipe gave a presentation about the cemetery and said the identities of the people in the eight graves is unknown but could be members of the families that lived on the farm, tenants or enslaved laborers.
The Peterson Companies will continue its public outreach and consult with local historic and preservation groups such as the Loudoun Freedom Center, Black History Committee and Heritage Commission to keep “all options on the table,” Compass Creek representative Steve Green said.
Should the court grant the order for disinterment, developers will work with community stakeholders to determine a place to move the graves, Green said. Before reinterment, the remains would be analyzed to identify the sex, ethnicity, age and possible identity of the remains, Boyd said.
Members of the audience were set against disinterment, regardless of who is buried, but especially if the cemetery is the resting place of former enslaved workers.
Loudoun County NAACP Community Coordinator Sonia Ballinger read a statement by chapter president Phillip Thompson opposing the removal of slaves or former slaves buried on the property
“Based on the information we have obtained, the Loudoun County NAACP believes the human remains you are seeking to disinter are the remains of slaves and former slaves of the Cool Springs and/or of surrounding plantations,” Ballinger read. “These slaves toiled in vain during their lives and their remains must not be arbitrarily disturbed without proper notification of descendants or considering local sentiments at this time.”
Forum participants asked developers to consult a second archaeology expert to assess the site and to consider developing around the grave site to protect it, or even put it in a permanent easement to prevent any future development. However, a challenge for future researchers, historians and archaeologists looking at the site is that the previous archaeological investigation disturbed the graves and removed any potential distinguishing artifacts that existed.
Loudoun resident Beverly Bradford also pointed to the construction of the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg having plans adjusted so as to not disturb a historic cemetery. She asked developers to consult with government officials who have experience changing development plans to respect graves.
Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk and representatives from the offices of county Chairwoman Phyllis Randall and supervisors Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg) were in attendance.
Higgins’ staff aide Stacey Carey urged developers to have an open dialogue with members of the community beyond the legal minimum requirements.
“It’s about doing the right thing, and if there’s flexibility with the project, there’s no reason not to be able to preserve this 500 square feet if possible,” Carey said.
Pastor Michelle Thomas, founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, was among the final speakers of the night and emphasized the public’s distrust of developers and the process. Thomas said she is distrustful because the archaeological report is almost identical to those of previous projects that failed to protect African-American historic resources like at Belmont and Coton.
Additionally, she said the disinterment of remains is a moral issue.
“Why we’re gathered here is not an issue of legality, it’s an issue of immorality. It is absolutely legal by state law to do everything that they have done. It is absolutely immoral to do everything that they have done, and so this coming together, if you will, is to basically become a moral arm or compass to the Compass Creek project. And I think you probably need some help in that,” Thomas said.
Thomas also said that while Peterson Companies owns the land and historic structures on the land, it does not own the remains of the humans buried there, and the fact the company has made decisions without consulting descendant or stakeholder groups makes Thomas feel like the company feels they own the remains of the enslaved.
“You own property, you don’t own remains,” Thomas said. “Given the circumstances that the enslaved have worked and labored, literally have been worked to death and they have finally got some sort of rest, and then you interrupt their rest trying to make another dollar.”
Thomas said she’d like to see developers halt the process and negotiate with the Loudoun Freedom Center to come up with solutions that benefit all parties.
The petition to disinter the graves has yet to be placed on the court docket. Subsequent public notices for forums will appear in the classified section.