“The wreaths were always to honor the ancestors,” Thomas said right before the ceremony. “To think that my child is now part of the ancestors, it’s almost unfathomable to me.”
Before the death of her middle child, before there was a gravestone here with a name she knew dearly, Thomas had built up the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved as a place for collective mourning.
A former engineer, she first came across the cemetery in 2015, amid an obscure set of county records. She followed an old map to the site and was outraged to find fieldstones and grave markers overgrown with weeds, with little else to mark the lives of the African Americans who had been enslaved at the nearby Belmont Plantation by cousins of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Thomas sought to preserve the cemetery by forming a group called the Loudoun Freedom Center and soon found herself embroiled in a protracted legal battle against property developers.
“I remember sitting in the courtroom and thinking we are never going to win,” Thomas said to people who had gathered at the burial site. “But look where we are.”
In 2017, after years of activism, the real estate firm Toll Brothers donated the 2.75 acres of land where the cemetery is situated to the Freedom Center. The group cleaned up the place with help from community members, including a local Boy Scout, Mikaeel Martinez Jaka, who in 2018 and 2019 led volunteers to pave a gravel path that led through the woods and past the sites with noticeable grave markers.
Over time, more people came. Teachers brought their classes; parents brought their children; and members of the local Black community brought one another.
Sandra Lindsay, who is Black, said she never knew about the burial site until Thomas, an old friend, became involved in with trying to preserve it. She has come to almost every wreath-laying ceremony, she said, and this year brought another friend, Kimberly Speed, to see the site for the first time.
“It carries so much weight for us, not just individually but as a collective,” Lindsay said. “It’s something I look forward to every year.”
Virginia Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax), who attended the ceremony, said Gov. Ralph Northam (D) wanted to personally thank Thomas for her contributions. “Your advocacy has inspired people across Virginia and the nation to protect historical burial grounds,” she said, reading a letter from Northam. “This ceremony … engenders hope.”
Protests of racial injustice have pushed communities across the country to revisit their entanglements with slavery, drawing greater attention to the work of historians, archivists and advocates who have been fighting to preserve burial sites. In Montgomery County, Md., a judge temporarily blocked the sale of a historic burial ground following a lawsuit from community activists. In the District, local officials were pressured to reevaluate construction plans when a woman found workers digging up ground near the remnants of two of the city’s oldest Black cemeteries.
Requests for tours have surged at the Belmont burial site, Thomas said. And plans are underway to expand it.
The Toll Brothers recently agreed to transfer over another four acres to the center, which will be used to re-create schoolhouses and other structures used by enslaved people. Space also is being carved out to build a columbarium and a scatter garden, where people can distribute ashes of their loved ones, Thomas said. By opening up the site to new burials, advocates hope they can secure committed caretakers of the grounds well into the future.
“Reconciliation and restoration cannot happen unless people decide to sit at the table and have a conversation,” Thomas said about the recent deal with Toll Brothers. “There are plenty of places for division — we don’t even have to look for that. What I want you to look out for is reconciliation.”
People in the audience on Sunday nodded.
Before the speeches began, some audience members had been discussing the acerbic discussions over race and gender that recently thrust Loudoun’s school board meetings into the national spotlight, dividing segments of the county’s 420,000 residents against one another. Thomas, who serves as president of the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP, said that she has not received any pushback against what the Freedom Center teaches during its heritage tours of the burial site — and that she wouldn’t entertain them even if she had.
“I certainly will not abate any of the real work, credible work, justifiable work that we’re doing here for some false narrative,” she said about the view among some parents — including in Loudoun — that policies to promote racial equity in schools was damaging to White children. “It dishonors our ancestors, and it dishonors the experiences of children today.”
When it came time to lay the wreaths, Thomas led the way, pausing first at a sign that indicated where the enslaved had been buried. She opened her arms and prayed, thinking about the children buried under her feet, about the children in the procession who were learning about this part of Loudoun’s history and finally about her own children — about Fitz. Before he died, he was a football player at Riverside High School in Leesburg, Va., beloved by his friends and teammates.
Thomas turned away from the crowd and hid her face behind the back of her husband, Delroy. Privately, she cried.