Over the past weekend, a sacred burial site on the Belmont Plantation in Ashburn, a Northern Virginia suburb close to Leesburg, was desecrated. The site had been gifted to the Loudoun County Freedom Center and renamed the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont. The work to restore and rededicate the grounds was a labor of love for Pastor Michelle Thomas and her son Fitz, who died just shy of his 17th birthday. Fitz is also buried at this site. Pastor Michelle often describes him as “the first African American person who was born free to be buried in this cemetery.”
As reported by local ABC 13 News, rocks originally placed in remembrance by Jewish friends and others by his grave were displaced and crushed. Signs of an attempted fire were also visible. Cash donations were taken from a display, and other devotional or memorial items were broken, thrown about, and tossed into a nearby pond. Law enforcement came on Monday and Tuesday to investigate and document evidence.
To give you a sense of this site, it is in a wooded section just off a major highway. It is a quiet area among the trees dedicated to reflection on the history of slavery and to letting the honored dead rest in peace. Regardless of how this gets ultimately classified by law enforcement, and while it certainly could have been much worse, it was an act of desecration that hurts the community as a whole.
Loudoun County was previously thrust into the national spotlight over parental anger fueled by outside PACs and given the “Parent’s rights” slogan from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s campaign to mask hatred for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts behind anti-mask “wokeism,” false cries of CRT, anti-trans measures, and book bans. In short, this Northern Virginia area that only recently trended blue with some security and durability over the last several election cycles became a testing ground for national aspirations and right-wing talking points, continuing the spread of MAGA views and attempts to normalize them in Confederated suburbia.
But true to her promise to focus on unity out of hatred, Pastor Michelle invited elected officials, law enforcement members, faith leaders, community groups, and individuals to return to the gravesite Wednesday to rebuild, rededicate, and commit to legislation to address hate.
She invited members from the various groups to gather around Fitz’s grave for an interfaith invocation led by her, a rabbi, and another Christian minister. Each elected official and community representative was called by name and invited to place a stone from the scattered pile back upon her son’s gravestone to rebuild back better. Afterward, she gave each official an opportunity to speak. Each offered condolences, apologies for reopening these wounds that still plague the community, and a commitment to address hate in the community through whatever means are possible.
State Del. David Reid, the local representative for this district, offered succinct sorrow and a personal pledge to Pastor Michelle and her husband.
The closing memorial words came from Rizwan Jaka, a close friend of the pastor’s from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. He was followed by his son and friend of Fitz’s, who helped build this memorial site with Fitz as part of an Eagle Scout project with the help of the Jewish and Muslim communities.
“Help wherever you can and however you can. Peace be with you.”
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A GoFundMe is in progress to raise the necessary funds for installing security cameras on this site. Pastor Michelle said, “This is not something I want to do, but I have to do it.” Please consider helping as you are able.
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