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Town of Leesburg Installs New Signage at Historic African American Cemetery
Town partners with Loudoun Freedom Center to properly identify and recognize the Sycolin Community Cemetery.
Pastor Michelle Thomas (left) and Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk
(right) at the Sycolin Community Cemetery's new sign.
Leesburg, VA (June 6, 2017) – Recently, the Town of Leesburg installed a new sign at the Sycolin Community Cemetery describing the community and its cemetery.
The Sycolin Community was an African American community settled by former slaves and their descendants in the 1880s. The community existed for more than 50 years, but the only remaining physical elements are the First Baptist Church of Sycoline, originally known as the Sycolin Union Church, and the cemetery.
The cemetery site is located just north of the First Baptist Church of Sycoline (19976 Sycolin Road). In 1989 and 1990, the Town purchased approximately eight acres of undeveloped land to provide a buffer for the south end of the airport runway.
While the site was known to be a cemetery, there were no efforts to acknowledge its presence or significance to the African American community. Jim Koenig, a Loudoun County employee, came across the site on a lunchtime walk about 15 years ago and recognized that it was a graveyard by the depression in the ground. He took the name of Chester Sidwell from the lone headstone he found and began to research Mr. Sidwell at the Thomas Balch Library. After he determined that it was an African American cemetery, he enlisted the help of Jim Roberts, a long-time member of the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, to assist him with clearing some of the overgrown brush at the cemetery and identifying more of the burials. He eventually determined that the last burial dated to 1959. In 2011, he wrote a paper detailing the results of his research, a copy of which is available at the Thomas Balch Library.
In 2015, Mr. Koenig contacted Pastor Michelle Thomas, founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, following her successful efforts to recognize the Belmont Slave Cemetery on Belmont Ridge Road threatened by development, and alerted her to the existence of the Sycolin Community Cemetery. After Pastor Thomas visited the site, she contacted the Town to discuss stewardship, and what should be done to preserve and protect the cemetery.
Since that initial meeting with Pastor Thomas, the Town has conducted a major clean up of the cemetery site that included removing fallen trees, over 100 tires, deer carcasses, and other debris as well as creating a walking path around the cemetery’s perimeter. Most recently, the Town installed the new sign to help educate the public about the cemetery and its history.
“Stewardship and community partnership are the key to recovering, preserving and protecting historic sites and sacred burial grounds,” Thomas says. “The County and Town just don’t have the adequate resources to maintain historic sites like these. If a site is lucky, a community organization or local family will adopt the site or cemetery and provide occasional maintenance. However, in the African American community, those dedicated caretakers and community organizations are few and far between. I am so very pleased with the way the Town has worked together with the Loudoun Freedom Center and the community to begin to restore respect for this cemetery and the lives of the people buried here.”
The Loudoun Freedom Center plans to partner with the Town on a long-term stewardship plan for the site that includes improved accessibility and interpretive signage to tell the stories of the historic African American community of Sycolin and its residents. Thomas hopes to establish an annual wreath laying ceremony and homecoming day for the descendants of the community. She also plans to enlist a Scout troop to improve the perimeter trail around the cemetery later this year.
“The Sycolin Cemetery project is a great example of a community partnership,” says Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk. “The cemetery had been unattended for years, long before the Town purchased the property. We are grateful to both Mr. Koenig for the research he did to identify many of the burials and to Pastor Thomas for the energy and enthusiasm she has brought to the stewardship of this site.”
“The ongoing efforts and Town partnership to restore the Sycolin African American Cemetery is proof that Loudoun can tackle the difficult subjects of race, preservation equality and honor, without dividing the community. All it takes is mutual respect and a willingness to honor all of the County’s residents. I’m proud of our current preservation progress and even more proud to live in a county that is unafraid to make a course correction.” Pastor Thomas adds.
Public Information Officer