by BAR Editor and Columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo
African descendants have forced a delay in further eradication of ancestral burial grounds in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, DC. “The African graves were totally eradicated and the memory of the African River Road community erased.” The demand is straightforward: “The land holding the remains of African ancestors must be preserved as a sacred space and a museum built to educate, honor and commemorate the ‘lost’ River Road African Community.”
The Bethesda African Cemetery: Protests Trigger Government Response
by BAR Editor and Columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo
“The descendant community is demanding accountability for the injustice visited upon their families in the mid-20thCentury.”
After months of public pressure and protests, Montgomery County Government has reluctantly suggested to “bring all parties together to address the various concerns that have been expressed and seek a solution that all can agree upon before we move forward.” The suggestion was made in a March 16, 2017, joint letter from County Executive, Isiah Leggett, and Council President, Roger Berliner, issued to Casey Anderson, Chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board. Black Agenda Report has covered this struggle extensively.
From outward appearances, the casual observer would never be able to discern the presence of the cemetery as every day hundreds of cars drive over what now is the Housing Opportunity Commission (HOC) apartment parking lot. Residents walk their dogs with the requisite bags in hand per Montgomery County mandate. Residents learned only a few weeks ago that their parking lot sits atop a historic African cemetery. This cemetery represents the sacred burial site of some first generation free Africans interred after Emancipation.
Typically, desecration is characterized by spray painting, defacing, breaking and overturning tombstones, as was reported last week to have happened to Jewish graves. The African graves, however, were totally eradicated and the memory of the African River Road community erased.
“This cemetery represents the sacred burial site of some first generation free Africans interred after Emancipation.”
In the mid-1950s developers, in collusion with Montgomery County, disenfranchised a vibrant Black colony that had been established on River Road dating to three years after Emancipation. The land was stolen from its new African citizens through tax schemes and physical intimidation tactics until every black family was forced to leave Bethesda. Once the land was taken, the next theft involved cleansing the history and memory of these crimes—by omission from written histories and the desecration of the entire cemetery—by literally burying it beneath 60 feet of fill dirt and installing a parking lot over the fill. This was done after construction of what is now the HOC apartment building on a portion of the cemetery encountered graves and had to stop work each time a grave was disrupted. The developers decided it would be easier to pave over the remaining burial areas.
Equity One, now the Regency Group—a multi-billion dollar real estate powerhouse—has applied to the Montgomery County Planning Office to build a parking garage on top of the existing parking lot. Approval of a preliminary site plan was temporarily halted for eight weeks after extensive public protest, marches and testimony forced the Planning Board’s hand. Still, the delay was insufficient to fully and exhaustively investigate the delineation of the cemetery and was seen by the descendent community as a thinly veiled attempt by the board to provide cover for its members and Equity One.
“The land was stolen from its new African citizens through tax schemes and physical intimidation tactics until every black family was forced to leave Bethesda.”
This prompted Macedonia Baptist Church, (MBC), the sole remaining institution of the African community, to request an emergency meeting with the county executive, to express its concerns about the lack of transparency in the process, mistrust of some officials within the government and to express the desire for an independent archeological team to be constituted—with direct participation of the descendent community—within the project. The meeting resulted in the March 16 letter to Casey Anderson suggesting the entire enterprise be put on hold until after mediation.
“We are surprised and disappointed,” said Rev. Segun Adebayo, pastor of MBC on receipt of the March 16 letter, “that the two county leaders expressed confidence in the staff of the Planning Board, considering that the process that led to our appealing to Messers Leggett and Berliner in the first place has lacked inclusion, transparency and has sought to solely advance the goals of the Equity One, the developer. We have no confidence in the Planning Board, especially the Planning Department and its director, Gwen Wright.” Despite these reservations, Rev. Adebayo continued, “We remain open and ready to engage in mediation, so long as the County starts to act in good faith and comes to the table with equity.”
The community has also taken umbrage with the joint letter that describes the descendants as: “those who believe their ancestors were buried on this site.” Rev Adebayo wrote back to the Planning Department declaring: “It is irrefutable that our ancestors are buried on this site. The Planning Board and the county government are fully aware that data show that bodies were buried in the site. We have consistently maintained publicly and to the county government that there is no evidence to suggest that the bodies interred were legally exhumed. Elementary logic and basic laws of science compel our belief, therefore, that the bodies remain where they were interred. Unless they were stolen or otherwise illegally removed.”
“We have no confidence in the Planning Board, especially the Planning Department and its director, Gwen Wright.”
The descendant community is demanding accountability for the injustice visited upon their families in the mid-20thCentury. The primary demand is straightforward: the land holding the remains of African ancestors must be preserved as a sacred space and a museum built to educate, honor and commemorate the ‘lost’ River Road African Community.
Mr. Harvey Matthews, whose family grew up in the African community on River Road and is a Trustee at the Macedonia Baptist Church said, “We are determined to secure the honor and dignity for our ancestors that were denied them in life, no matter how long and what it takes. While we are grateful for this first, tentative step toward righting wrongs that the County Government played a very active role in for over a half a century. I, for one, am not fooled into believing the letter on its face. It’s like the old saying: ‘The proof of the pudding is in the tasting.’ Let’s see if the county government brings good faith to the table when the actual mediation begins.”
Meanwhile, organizers are warning its allies to stay engaged and not be lulled into complacency by the offer of mediation.
The government’s movement towards a just settlement of the Bethesda African Cemetery struggle was forced by mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. The Bethesda community will continue to organize and reach out to other communities fighting local governments and their collusion with developers who both have shown little regard for black folks, whether living or dead.
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 was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, March 2017.