In Virginia, A Family Tragedy Stirs New Life In A Burial Ground For The Enslaved For the last five years, Pastor Michelle Thomas restored a burial ground used by enslaved people in Virginia. Then, when her teenage son drowned, she buried him in it.
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In Virginia, A Family Tragedy Stirs New Life In A Burial Ground For The Enslaved

In Virginia, A Family Tragedy Stirs New Life In A Burial Ground For The Enslaved

In Virginia, A Family Tragedy Stirs New Life In A Burial Ground For The Enslaved

In Virginia, A Family Tragedy Stirs New Life In A Burial Ground For The Enslaved

Surrounded by loved ones, Pastor Michelle Thomas grieves at the stone marking her son's grave at the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont. Her son, Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas, 16, died in June and is the first free African American to be buried at the site. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Pastor Michelle Thomas was scouring Loudoun County records five years ago for evidence of the enslaved people who once toiled on the area's plantations. In Folder 17 of a county collection she found a listing that caught her eye: "Slave Cemetery — Belmont Plantation." It became her life's work.

Thomas led a community effort to gain custody of the grounds and clear the overgrowth and trees that obscured the old fieldstones. Her work sparked new interest in other abandoned African American graveyards, setting an example for preservationists across Virginia.

Then, tragedy hit. In June, Thomas's 16-year-old son Fitz drowned. The pastor laid her son to rest in the cemetery she had fought to restore. Steps away from the old fieldstones she had uncovered, she says the fresh grave sent a signal.

"My son is the first African American person who was born free to be buried in this cemetery," Thomas says. "He brings the message of freedom to the ancestors that eventually, we made it to the other side."

Remembering A Forgotten Cemetery

At 49, Thomas speaks with a booming voice honed at the pulpit. She works with the exactitude of an electrical engineer, her first career. In 2015, she set out to build a church for her Holy and Whole Life Changing Ministries, based in Landsdowne, Va.

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At first, she says she researched county records to avoid building on a burial ground. Then she found the Belmont listing, with records dating back to 1854. When she followed a map to the site across Harry Byrd Highway in Ashburn, she could see fieldstones and depressions in the earth marking graves. She was outraged that despite having records of its existence, the county had done little to maintain or mark the grounds.

"What was more deplorable is that information existed," she said. "All that paperwork existed, we just had no one that was interested or demanding that this history be told."

Rough, unmarked stones mark graves at the the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont in Loudoun County, Va. Enslaved people once made up more than a quarter of the county's population, but their graves, like these, were often neglected. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

This is a common fate for African American burial grounds across the country and in Loudoun County, which prior to the Civil War saw as much as a quarter of its population enslaved. At the former Belmont Plantation, now a country club, the enslaved were laid to rest near a rock quarry and were eventually abandoned. In the early 2000s, local activists prevented it from being encircled by a highway interchange, but they did not have the resources to maintain the graves. Thomas said she had passed the graveyard unwittingly hundreds of times.

Finding the fieldstones fueled Thomas, who put her church plans on hold and threw herself into restoring the cemetery. In 2015, she dedicated the graveyard and created the Loudoun Freedom Center to promote historical preservation. Two years later, she pushed the Toll Brothers real estate developers to donate the 2.75 acres on which the cemetery lay. She also mobilized the community: a local Boy Scout, Mikaeel Martinez Jaka, organized more than 100 volunteers to pave a gravel path that would lead visitors into the woods. For his efforts, Jaka was recognized by the World Organization of the Scout Movement at the United Nations and by the Virginia General Assembly.

Thomas has since worked to restore more graveyards, including Tippets Hill in Sterling, Va. and Sycolin Cemetery in Leesburg, Va.

Pastor Michelle Thomas poses for a portrait at the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont in Ashburn, Va. Thomas restored the graveyard and then returned to use as a final resting place for her son. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Thomas's quest is part of a rising state and national interest in African American sites, says Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.) was chief co-sponsored of a bill to creating a network of African American burial grounds; a recent Virginia law allocated funding for maintaining the historic sites.

Elizabeth Kostelny, the CEO of the Richmond-based Preservation Virginia, says she recruited Thomas to speak about her experiences. Kostelny said African American communities often know of their own cemeteries for years, and interest had soared in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. She said Thomas provided a possible template for how to restore the old grounds.

"We felt that Pastor Michelle's advocacy, the way she organized her work, the way she acquired the control of the property was something that many people could benefit from hearing," Kostelny said.

Yet even with its restoration, the graveyard in Ashburn retained a museum-like air. School children came to learn history, and Thomas led annual wreath-laying ceremonies. Thomas is the current president of the NAACP Loudoun Branch. The former president, Phillip Thompson, says just a few locals had a solid connection to the stones.

"There's people in this county that have ancestors that are actually buried here and they knew it," Thompson says. "They knew they were there."

'Bury Him In The Place That I Give My Best Care To'

Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas was a football player beloved by his friends and teachers at Riverside High School in Leesburg. He was swimming with friends in Goose Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, on June 4 when he drowned. His friends and local residents found his body and called 911, but first responders did not reach the Virginia side of the river at first. Instead, dispatchers routed the calls to Montgomery County in Maryland. Fitz languished for 38 minutes before emergency crews finally took him to Inova Loudoun Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Fitz was the middle of Thomas's three children: her son Adrian is 27, and daughter Anna is 12. In her grief, Thomas considered where to bury her son.

"I had to think," she says. "Let's bury him in the place that I give my best care to."

Flowers and a wind spinner mark the grave of Fitz Thomas at the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont in Ashburn, Va.. "My son is the first African American person who was born free to be buried in this cemetery," says his mother, Pastor Michelle Thomas. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Restoring a historic African American burial ground to modern use is highly unusual, says Leggs of the National Trust.

"It's very rare to hear of someone burying their loved one in an old, underserved cemetery," Leggs wrote DCist/WAMU. "It's the reclaiming of history and space, and the way communities can ensure that Black cemeteries are cared for and respected in perpetuity."

On what would have been Fitz's 17th birthday weekend in mid-August, Thomas gathered about 200 of his classmates and neighbors for a rally.

She says Fitz's death should spur deep change, from adding cell towers along bodies of water to retraining dispatchers and teaching CPR to Loudoun County Public School athletes. Also on her "FitzIt List" is to rename Confluence Park, where he drowned, in his honor.

Already, Loudoun County Fire and Rescue changed its protocol and will dispatch rescue crews any time a call comes from the Virginia side of the Potomac River, says spokesperson Laura Rinehart.

Thomas may succeed in checking more off of her list as Loudoun County undergoes a summer of racial reckoning. Protests over George Floyd's killing have drawn hundreds of people through the streets of Leesburg. In July, the Daughters of the Confederacy removed a statue that had stood in front of the Loudoun County Courthouse since 1908. At the memorial rally, anguish over Fitz's death interlaced with the Black Lives Matter movement.

"What do we want? Justice!" shouted protesters. "Justice for who? Fitz!"

"Fitz's life matters, with an 'S.' It still matters," Thomas told the crowd. "And we're going to fight to change laws and regulations and policies until all of us are protected."

Pastor Michelle Thomas leads her late son's family and high school friends on a march to his grave on August 15, 2020. She is demanding changes in public safety after first responders took nearly 40 minutes to arrive to the site where he drowned. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

An Old Graveyard Draws New Visitors

While she works to advance systemic change in Loudoun, Thomas says the burial ground she helped restore has stirred to life. She says she applied for permission to bury three people in the graveyard: Fitz, her husband Delroy, and herself. Now, other Black residents have asked to be buried there as well.

"There's absolutely room," Thomas says.

The once-forgotten cemetery is also attracting more foot traffic. Thomas visits her son's grave daily, passing by the old fieldstones. One day, Thomas noticed roses laid beside the stones; she doesn't know who left them there.

Among the new visitors is Sharon Koorbusch, 54, who works as a sales director. On the day Fitz drowned, she and her husband Ed, 60, were walking their dog near Goose Creek when they heard a group of teens in distress. Ed Koorbusch jumped in the water and organized Fitz's friends to form a grid to search for the missing teen and drag him out of the water. Sharon Koorbusch says her husband did chest compressions while she called 911 over and over again. Since then, she says she visits the graveyard to clear weeds and clear her mind.

Sharon Koorbusch, right, hugs Pastor Michelle Thomas at an Aug. 15, 2020 march for Thomas's son Fitz in Landsdowne, Va. Koorbusch and her husband tried to save Fitz on the day he drowned. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

"I just go there myself since Fitz passed away. I didn't even know it was there before," she says. Fitz had been a stranger, she says, but, "when someone dies in your hands it's really difficult not to have a connection with them."

A well-wisher stops to touch a portrait of Fitz Thomas at a march in Loudoun County to protest his June drowning. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Fitz's friend Christian Yohannes says he too drew closer to the graveyard because of the tragedy. Christian, 17, remembered Fitz helping to lay the path that winds through the grounds.

"Over that summer I was probably off playing my Xbox or something like that," Christian says. "Which is also what I respect the most about Fitz."

Mikaeel Martinez Jaka, right, leads scouts on a march into the burial ground he helped rebuild. For his efforts, Jaka was recognized by the World Organization of the Scout Movement at the United Nations. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

At Fitz's funeral, Christian walked that same path as a pallbearer. A local band played "When the Saints Go Marching In." Christian remembers that Fitz's grave lay in a natural spotlight, under an opening in the trees.

"You saw the sun glaring right down on the grave the day that he was laid to rest," he says. "I spent the entire time just staring up into that little patch of sky."

Christian Yohannes, left, comforts Fitz Thomas's older brother Adrian. Christian was a pallbearer at Fitz's funeral and said he noticed his best friend's grave lay in a natural spotlight, illuminated by an opening in the trees. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Christian traced that path again at the rally for Fitz in August. Pastor Thomas led the crowd into the forest, singing "We shall overcome" into a megaphone. Jaka carried a tasseled American flag, and he and other Scouts stood on the march's front line.

Questions Linger

Thomas has counted 44 graves at the Belmont burial ground, but she believes there are more. She says a drainage pond dug on the grounds in the 1950s removed human remains and fieldstones. She hopes to launch an archaeological dig, but it will be impossible to find all the bodies. Some of the dirt was later spread on the highway now named for the segregationist Harry Byrd, she says.

"When you drive on Route 7 now, you're actually driving on the remains of our ancestors," she says.

Thomas is also still looking for answers about Fitz. When asked if he died in a drowning accident, she raises doubts. "We're still determining that," she says. "He absolutely drowned. The circumstances surrounding his drowning, I'm not so sure."

Pastor Michelle Thomas gets a "Justice for Fitz" temporary tattoo on her leg at an August 15, 2020 rally in her late son's memory. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

The Loudoun County Sheriff's Office says it is investigating the drowning.

In the forest, Thomas stopped the group at Fitz's grave. She crouched down to look at the stone. Next year she will replace it with an engraved headstone but on this day, it was rough and unmarked,like the other blank markers in the forest.

Then Thomas placed her arms on the stone and began to weep. Her oldest son, Adrian, knelt beside her. Her daughter Anna leaned on a cousin. Around them, family and friends filled out the forest and stood in the trees' dappled light.

Family, classmates and teammates mourn Fitz Thomas at Loudoun County's African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont, where he is buried. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

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