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Fight To Find, Protect African American Burial Grounds Grows Across Virginia

Headstone in tall grass

Next to a six-lane highway in Loudoun County, in the woods behind a large plantation-turned-country-club, Pastor Michelle Thomas leads a tour through a centuries old burial ground.

“That’s a fieldstone,” she says, pointing to a sizable and weathered stone with no inscriptions, sticking out of the ground.

Dozens of these fieldstones lay all around her, going deeper and deeper into the woods, and then they stop, forming an edge.

“You see how close that is to the edge?” she asks the group, as they look out over a large dry pond where the gravesite ends.

In the 1950s, Thomas explains, the plantation’s white owner attempted to solve a flooding issue on the property by carving the pond out of the African American grave site. It was the final resting place of about 80 enslaved people.

About half of those graves were destroyed, but the rest remain. It’s now known as the African American Burial Grounds for the Enslaved at Belmont and is one of about a dozen African American burial grounds in the area that Thomas is currently fighting to save.

“The struggle is real and you have to have a fortitude that's almost supernatural,” said Thomas, the head of the Loudoun County NAACP and the nonprofit  Loudoun Freedom Center. “That literally comes from the ancestors push that will allow you to hang on in there and fight for preservation justice.”

The Freedom Trail Road leads visitors to the African American Burial Grounds for the Enslaved at Belmont, part of preservation efforts by the Loudoun Freedom Center. (Photo: Jordy Yager)

Loudoun has become prime real estate for big companies.  WalmartMicrosoftGoogle, they’re all building here. But there’s a catch, said Thomas.

“If you're going to buy a lot of land in Loudoun County, it’s probably going to be a former plantation,” she said.

Thousands of enslaved African Americans were buried on these plantations, and a century and a half later, most of their descendants have never been given access to them. This means that those graves and that history has never been recognized, let alone documented or preserved, said Thomas, who  fights developers for access and ownership.

Lawmakers are fighting these racist legacies too. Virginia Democratic Congressman Donald McEachin helped introduce  a bill to create the first national database for African American burial grounds. The measure hasn’t been scheduled for a vote.

And in 2017, Virginia enacted  Del. Delores McQuinn’s bill allocating $5 for the upkeep of each African American grave -- the same as white cemeteries. Since then, she’s steadily added to the list of sites eligible for that funding.

“We can't change that people did not care, but for us to continue to walk on that journey of not caring, being dismissive, I think is not just an injustice to those who are buried there but an injustice to humanity,” said McQuinn.

These bills are “fantastic,” Thomas said, but they’re not enough. She’d like to see both the Virginia state code and the National Preservation Act amended.

“The minimum cemetery preservation in terms of state code may be okay for white cemeteries, but for African American cemeteries that are already marginalized, the minimum doesn't even get us to the standards of where the worst white cemetery is,” said Thomas.

For starters, Thomas says, any organization that receives government money should be required to give African American gravesites back to descendant communities.

To not do so, is a type of theft, say Thomas and historians like Professor Shawn Utsey, the chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of African American Studies, who researches grave-robbing. In 2011, Utsey released a documentary,  Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies.

In the 19th century, he says, white anatomy classes at VCU and the University of Virginia bought dozens of African American bodies a year, dug up from Richmond graveyards. Black bodies were used because, even in death, laws didn’t protect them as proactively as white ones. But Utsey said, it goes beyond just the law.

“It’s very serious in terms of disrupting the cultural frame of reference people have about the sacredness of burial,” said Utsey. “So every culture has this. But when you disregard a significant part of one's culture, you disregard their humanity.”

Documentarian Brad Bennett films at the Rose Hill Baptist Cemetery in Albemarle County for his forthcoming film  Unmarked. (Photo: Jordy Yager)

Deep in the woods outside Charlottesville, Brad Bennett is walking through an overgrown African American graveyard. It has about 200 graves, which Bennett is filming for his forthcoming documentary,  Unmarked. He and co-director Chris Haley got the idea after seeing the restoration work journalist  Brian Palmer’s doing with Richmond’s East End cemetery. It’s about Virginia efforts to reclaim sacred African American sites. Much of our racist past was designed to tear people apart, said Bennett, but the film aims to show that looking back can actually bring people together.

“Connect people to their history too,” said Bennett. “I think that’s another big part of it, is wanting people to remember their roots, where they came from.”

While making the film, Bennett met Pastor Michelle Thomas in Loudoun County, where the Leesburg City Council  recently gave her group ownership of as many as 100 African American graves in Sycolin Cemetery.

For her next act, Thomas tells her tour group, she’s gotten a pair of iconic brown historical signs approved for the highway running next to the grave site where they’re standing.

“When I die those signs will still be here,” she says. “It’s true, you can’t remove those historic signs, they’re here.”

She says she hopes the history will never be lost again.

**This story is part two of a series on African American Burial Grounds. Read part one:  Passenger Rail Project Slated To Run Through Richmond African American Graveyard.

Journalist  Samantha Willis is also reporting on this issue. She has a forthcoming two-part series in  Scalawag Magazine later this month.

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