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Leaders protest Leesburg's handling of African American cemetery

WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. logo WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. 12/12/2018 Peggy Fox

LEESBURG, Va. -- African American leaders in Leesburg are protesting the handling of cemetery where former slaves and their descendants are buried.

The town was trying to find a group to maintain the cemetery, but its plan is being compared to an oppressive Jim Crow-era sharecroppers agreement.

Most of the 60 plus graves in the Sycolin Cemetery are unmarked. There are a few headstones and the most recent one is engraved, but its covered with leaves and vines.

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"If this site were properly maintained, I wouldn't have to do this. This site is not maintained," said Pastor Michelle Thomas, executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, a non-profit that cares for two other African American cemeteries in the county.

The one along Sycolin Road is owned by the town of Leesburg, and poorly maintained. The town did put up fences around the graves, and built a trail with gravel and sand. However, much of it washed away.

"They absolutely left it here just like they left and abandoned the cemetery for over 30 years," said Thomas.

She wants Leesburg to give the land the cemetery sits on to her group, which would be responsible for maintaining it.

But Mayor Kelly Burk said that's not that easy because the town bought the land with funds from the FAA. The property is close to the Leesburg Airport and in a runway protection zone.

"The FAA will require that we repay them all of the costs of that site...So there's the money aspect. That it would be fairly expensive we estimate, to just give it away," said Mayor Burk.

The Leesburg Town Council decided to put out a request to lease the property for five years at a rent agreement of $1 annually.

"As a compromise, the council thought, if we leased it, we can develop a partnership," said Burk.

But Pastor Thomas said it's not a compromise.

"We just want where our ancestor's souls are buried. Is that difficult?"

She questioned the town's position that the property is valuable and it can't just give it away.

"How do you know it's worth money? In order to say that something is worth money, you must have it appraised. The town has never has never appraised the cemetery," said Thomas.

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The mayor and Town Manager Keith Markel admit the town has not had the property appraised.

Thomas calls the lease proposal "a sharecropper's deal" because it requires the organization to maintain it, which could be costly.

"They won't donate to help us upkeep, to maintain the bushes, but they have maintenance in the lease agreement. It's a problem," she said.

Thomas said it's a stark contrast to another five year lease agreement Leesburg signed with the Loudoun Museum which gets the free use of buildings. Thomas calls that a "sweetheart deal" worth tens of thousands of dollars in-kind donations from the town.

Pastor Thomas attended a meeting on that lease proposal with town leaders, and told them what she thought it.

Now, a council member is asking that that the lease request be rescinded. A special town council meeting may be scheduled to deal with the cemetery issue next week.

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