by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Adebayo
Ethnic cleansing is endemic in the U.S., from the cradle to the grave – and beyond. An African burial ground in Bethesda, Maryland, already paved over for a parking lot, now faces total destruction at the hands of developers. “Can anyone imagine the outrage that would ensue if the Arlington National cemetery or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was being treated with the same disrespect as the Bethesda African cemetery?”
Continued Desecration of Bethesda African Cemetery: We Shall Stay in Our Resistance! Part II
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Adebayo
“Our African ancestors were disrespected in life and discarded in death.”
A battle is brewing between the Macedonia Baptist Church, a small African-American church located in the now predominantly white and wealthy Washington, DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, and the real estate investment powerhouse Equity One, worth over three billion dollars, a member of the New York Stock Exchange and the Montgomery County Maryland Planning Commission. The battle is over an cemetery where descendants of the Bethesda African community were buried between 1911 and the mid-1950’s. The African burial ground was originally “disturbed” in the 1950’s in order to build a parking lot. Montgomery County officials will decide on Thursday whether to approve the first in a series of plans to allow Equity One to further desecrate the African burial ground by building a garage on top of the parking lot. The disrespect and disregard for the African burial ground has sparked outrage throughout Westbard community in Bethesda and the Washington, DC area.
Four years after Emancipation, in 1869, Africans began buying land and establishing community on River Road in what is now known as Bethesda, Maryland. Macedonia Baptist Church (MBC,) became the religious centerpiece of the newly liberated colony in 1920. The church is one of the oldest African churches in Montgomery County and is composed, in part, of descendants of the original African community on River Road. The MBC community, located in the center of one of the wealthiest communities in the US, was once a thriving community of descendants of Africans liberated in the mid-1860s. However, the land, as well as the homes of the River Road African community, were stolen by developers through taxation schemes, intimidation, business manipulation and collusion with local government.
“The disrespect and disregard for the African burial ground has sparked outrage throughout Westbard community in Bethesda and the Washington, DC area.”
Once the developers and local government displaced the River Road African community, vulture capitalists destroyed the River Road Colored School forcing Black students into predominantly white schools where, as Harvey Matthews, a trustee of Macedonia Baptist Church, remembers, “it was like going to war everyday to go to school.” After the community was decimated and land-owning households disenfranchised, the private/public vulture class descended upon the cemetery. Moses Cemetery, lovingly named by the community, operated under the benevolent society of the Ancient United Order of the Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters of Moses. This parcel of land had been in African ownership since 1869.
But, in the hands of white businesses and government vultures, tombstones marking the names of the deceased were discarded, graves were desecrated and questions have never been answered about the remains of family members who were “dug-up” in the process of building a parking lot and an apartment building on the cemetery.
Mr. Harvey Matthews, a descendant of one of the original African families who lived on River Road, drives past his former home on a weekly basis. His ancestral home is now the site of a Whole Foods and a strip mall. The sycamore trees still stand where his front yard once stood and the tulips that his mother planted still bloom every spring. These are painful memories for Mr. Matthews and members of his family as they travel down River Road and recall their childhood. The land in Bethesda that his family once owned is now worth millions of dollars. His story, like so many other Africans in America, exposes how corporate America stole hard earned wealth and redistributed that wealth to white America.
“Tombstones marking the names of the deceased were discarded, graves were desecrated and questions have never been answered about the remains of family members who were ‘dug-up.’”
Members of Macedonia Baptist Church are not intimidated by the David and Goliath fight. Rev Segun Adebayo, Interim Pastor of MBC stated: “We are aware of the challenges that we face and we are not fearful. As a community of faith, we know who won the fight between David and Goliath.” Despite opposition from MBC, Montgomery County Parks and Planning Commission plans to move forward with an Equity One sketch plan approval hearing on February 23rd. At every turn in this process, community concerns have been met with characteristic disdain and disregard for their ancestors and their concerns.
Initially, the scope of work offered to Drs. Michael Blakey, who was the principle investigator for the New York Wall Street African Burial Ground Project, and Rachel Watkins, a Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Washington, DC, limited their ability to thoroughly research the Bethesda African cemetery and sought to confine their contribution to that of simply providing “peer review.” In other words, Drs. Blakey and Watkins would only review the work of an archaeological firm without any contribution to the clinical work of research on the burial ground project. In addition, the Planning Office attempted to control the flow of information by insisting that all information from the research would be directed to the Office and not the descendant community or the public. The intention of the Planning Office was to gag the Drs. Blakey and Watkins.
This gag order was intended to disempower descendants and those who stand in solidarity with the River Road African community and exclusively place the power of knowledge derived from the investigation in the hands of Montgomery County Parks and Planning Commission.
“The Planning Office attempted to control the flow of information by insisting that all information from the research would be directed to the Office and not the descendant community or the public.”
This is the process through which American history is written. Those in power and privilege control the outflow of information. This is the cleansing of the unsavory aspect of white supremacy that allows the privileged to remain ignorant of the violence perpetrated against African people. This willful amnesia of the violence and desecration of the Bethesda African community and other similarly placed communities allows present and future generations to move forward with genocidal intent. Can anyone imagine the outrage that would ensue if the Arlington National cemetery or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was being treated with the same disrespect as the Bethesda African cemetery?
However, it was through community outrage and demonstrations that the Montgomery County Planning Office reversed its initial decision and is now negotiating a broader scope of work for the anthropologists. It will be equally important for all information gathered in the course of this research to be simultaneously shared with the descendent community and the public. It would be naïve for African people to trust government or private interests to respect the contributions of our ancestors or use this information in the interest of front-line communities.
I attempted to hand Montgomery County Board Chair Casey Anderson hundreds of petitions from Montgomery County residents demanding that he reschedule the February 23rd Equity One Hearing. He refused to accept the petitions, citing a conflict of interest. One has to wonder, however, whether Mr. Anderson has met with Equity One and if so, why that meeting was not a conflict of interest.
The rush to approve the Equity One sketch plan despite a lack of progress in meeting milestones before the February 23rd meeting is simply the power of money and its influence with government. At the end of the day, our African ancestors were disrespected in life and discarded in death. The Macedonia Baptist Church struggle is one that should be supported by all progressive and human rights organizations. For our part, we shall stay in our resistance.
Please sign the petition below and review the links of the press coverage of this struggle:
Dr. Marsha Adebayo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet and serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com. Marsha will be inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, March 2017.