The Loudoun Freedom Center has announced that it will not sign a memorandum of understanding to take ownership of the historic Sycolin Cemetery after the Leesburg Town Council voted against a $150,000 flood mitigation measure last Tuesday night.
LFC Founder, pastor and NAACP Loudoun Branch President Michelle Thomas said that she will continue to negotiate until the town agrees to pay for and install pipes or drains to reduce flooding on the property.
“We cannot have separate but equal preservation in this community,” Thomas told the Times-Mirror. “[Leesburg] has a moral debt that they have never paid.”
The Sycolin Cemetery property has been part of the Leesburg Executive Airport’s runway protection zone since Leesburg purchased the property in 1989. The land is the final resting place of approximately 65 Black Loudoun residents buried between 1913 and 1954. The property was left in a natural state and accumulated deer carcasses until it was brought to public attention in 2015.
During a public meeting last week, Councilman Zach Cummings made a motion for the town to fund a flood mitigation project with up to $150,000 from the town’s general fund. The measure failed in a 3-4 vote. Vice Mayor Fernando “Marty” Martinez and Councilwoman Suzanne Fox joined Cummings in voting for the measure. Mayor Kelly Burk, Councilwoman Kari Nacy and Councilmen Neil Steinberg and Ara Bagdasarian voted against it.
Instead, council voted unanimously to move forward with the MOU as written and also remove the northern gravel path to the cemetery, which, along with the wet ground and natural spring nearby, has contributed to water pooling in some grave shafts. A southern gravel path will still provide access to the cemetery, and the removal will make no impact on the town budget, Assistant Town Manager Keith Markel said.
Markel also said that if the LFC refuses to sign the MOU, town staff will maintain the property as-is for $3,300 a year but not perform any additional preservation.
Thomas told the Times-Mirror that if the town had maintained the property at this rate since its purchase, to date it would have spent $105,600 by.
“It’s never going to be dry back there…I just want headstones to be able to be installed without being floated off into the stream,” she told council Tuesday night, adding that the LFC plans to install permanent headstones over the graves for descendants and for the historical record. The cemetery currently has one engraved headstone and several original fieldstone markers.
“It is an undue and unfair burden to put this [cost] on the backs of the Loudoun Freedom Center,” Thomas said.
Town staff claimed that they never saw flooding severe enough to wash headstones away, and that Thomas never brought up the flooding issue until the council’s last discussion of the cemetery in April. The town also said that without a soil analysis, it’s unclear whether or not any mitigation efforts would be successful.
The town has already spent roughly $81,000 in studies and maintenance, not including staff time.
Mayor Burk said that her vote against the flood mitigation had nothing to do with Thomas’s claim of “separate but equal preservation.”
“We’ve tried in good faith to give the LFC the land that they asked for, that they can preserve and take care of as they see fit…We are giving it to them free and clear,” she said. “I feel very strongly that we did the right thing for the residents and taxpayers of Leesburg and that we will continue to represent them as [unbiased] as we possibly can.”
Councilman Neil Steinberg, a member of the Loudoun County NAACP, told the Times-Mirror he voted for Thomas’s presidency twice and does not consider Thomas’s allegation accurate or constructive.
“I appreciate [Thomas] and the work she does,” he said. “[Sycolin Cemetery] is a very environmentally sensitive area and it is wet…I wasn’t prepared to spend $150,000 to fix an environmentally sensitive area that would be hard to fix at best.”
Thomas said she plans to keep speaking with the four members of council who voted against the $150,000 flood mitigation measure.
“It is clear that they [the council] do not understand what is at stake…This cannot stand,” Thomas said. “Somehow, some way, this community will rally until we get the rest [of council] on board or one more on board.”
Currently, the town awaits final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and plans to submit the MOU to the LFC for consideration soon.