A Pastor Rescues A Cemetery For Enslaved People, Then Buries Her Son In It After her teenaged son drowned, Pastor Michelle Thomas decided to bury him in a old burial ground she had come across earlier while searching for a new site for her church.

A Pastor Rescues A Cemetery For Enslaved People, Then Buries Her Son In It

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We've now got the story of one family in Loudoun County, Va. It involves a lost burial ground now found, a national reckoning over race and a drowning. Here's Daniella Cheslow of member station WAMU.


DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: Pastor Michelle Thomas walks into a forest in Loudoun County, Va., to the grave of her son.

MICHELLE THOMAS: My son is the first African American person who was born free to be buried in this cemetery.

CHESLOW: Thomas' son is named Fitz. And I'll tell you more about how he died later, but where he's buried is its own story. Five years ago, Thomas says, she was looking for a new site for her church when, in county records, she saw a listing called Belmont Slave Cemetery.

THOMAS: I saw it on a cemetery index. And so I just literally saw the points on a plot and I just went through the woods to find it.

CHESLOW: She found unmarked rocks in the ground at the ends of long, narrow depressions in the soil. Thomas persuaded the owners of the land to donate it. She got Boy Scouts to pave trails into the forest. And she counted 44 graves, though she thinks there's more. It bothers her that the county has known about this cemetery since at least the 1850s.

THOMAS: All that paperwork existed. We just had no one that was interested or demanding that this history be told.

CHESLOW: Then this past June, the historical project became personal for Thomas. Her son was swimming with friends in a tributary of the Potomac River when he drowned. Fitz's death baffled family and friends. Here's Phil Thompson, former president of the Loudoun NAACP.

PHIL THOMPSON: Fitz was a strong athlete, young kid swimming all his life. I live in that neighborhood. It's - the creek was maybe 20, 30 yards, so it shouldn't have been a tough swim.

CHESLOW: The Loudoun County Sheriff's Office is investigating the drowning. Emergency crews took nearly 40 minutes to reach the scene. An incident review by authorities in both Virginia and Maryland found that even though Fitz was swimming in Virginia, cell towers routed 911 calls to the Maryland side of the Potomac.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Loudoun County 911. What is your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. Someone please get down here. River creek...

CHESLOW: Operators struggled to locate the teen. Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Chief Keith Johnson says he's implementing changes that include new software to pinpoint the location of emergency callers and training dispatchers to listen better.


KEITH JOHNSON: Obviously, it's a tragic event. And I believe we have done everything we can do to make the changes.

CHESLOW: Those should have been implemented long before her son went swimming, Thomas says. Now she says she wants a say in the changes, and she wants compensation for what she believes is wrongful death. At a recent protest, she tied Fitz's death to the movement for racial justice.


THOMAS: Fitz's life matters - with an S. It still matters. And we're going to fight to change laws and change regulations and policy until all of us are protected. God bless you.




CHESLOW: In Loudoun County, people are listening. Fitz died just days after George Floyd's killing drew more than a thousand people to the streets here. The county's Confederate monument came down in July. On what would have been Fitz's 17th birthday weekend, Thomas led 200 people to his grave.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Let's have a moment of silence now.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) ...The morning will come (ph)...

CHESLOW: There's no headstone yet, just a rock that resembles the older graves nearby. Thomas leaned her arms on it and cried.


THOMAS: (Crying).

CHESLOW: She had rescued the cemetery from its long neglect, but no one had saved her son.

For NPR News, I'm Daniella Cheslow.


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