by BAR Editor and Columnist Dr. Marsha Adebayo
When a planning board in a wealthy Washington suburb sided with developers that want to obliterate an African burial ground, the only concession they made to Blacks was to use ground radar to search for human remains -- as if there is a question of who lies there. One protester asked: “They going to use radar on Lincoln's tomb? Or the Unknown Soldier? Or Kennedy's grave in Arlington to determine if those sites are still holy?"
Maryland County Commission Favors Developer Over African Burial Ground
by BAR Editor and Columnist Dr. Marsha Adebayo
“Residents wondered out loud what was the point of testifying before the Commission when the Hearing is simply Kabuki Theater.”
Despite nearly five hours of overwhelming opposition expressed from nearly 40 participants representing wide ranging public interests, the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday sided with NY Stock Exchange-traded Equity One and approved plans for development of a controversial site. Planning officials attempted to convince residents that the development plan approved on Thursday does not include the African Burial ground. However, Montgomery County residents clearly do not trust the Planning Board. At the conclusion of the testimonies, without consultation or reflection, the Board approved the Equity One plan within seconds of the last heart wrenching testimony, with a stipulation that the developer complete "examination" of the Bethesda African Cemetery within 60 days.
The Commissioners, on recommendation from the Planning staff, also decided to sideline independent scientists from direct participation in the "examination" of the African burial site beyond a perfunctory oversight role in peer review of results provided by an Equity One contracted firm. The lesson coming from the hearing is clear: the Montgomery County government controls the Planning Board and the Planning Board is controlled by developers. Residents expressed their frustration at the Hearing and wondered out loud what was the point of testifying before the Commission when the Hearing is simply Kabuki Theater.
The Equity One plan calls for 1.8 million square feet of residential, retail and commercial development with townhouses costing over a million dollars each. Congregants at Macedonia Baptist Church argue the entire proposal should be tabled until officials protect and memorialize the historic cemetery site, now partially covered by the Westwood Towers parking lot.
“The lesson coming from the hearing is clear: the Montgomery County government controls the Planning Board and the Planning Board is controlled by developers.”
Church members argue that the remains of their ancestors do not belong to anyone and are not subject to negotiations. Furthermore, church members emphasize the sanctity and sacredness of the African burial space and pointedly told the Montgomery Planning director that the rush to advance the development of the shopping center and garage confirms one undeniable fact—that the Planning Commission is in the back pocket of the developers.
The Planning Department and the developer have established a corrupt “gold” standard that’s akin to junk science in determining the existence of African remains. They hope to intimidate the public into silence by the use of a scientific tool called earth penetrating radar (EPR) and few will question its efficacy. However, this tool has a statistically small chance of determining the existence of burial shafts. The burial ground is composed of dense red clay that was used by the African community in Bethesda for making red bricks, pottery and other utensils. At best the accuracy of the technology is suspect and in the case of clay-based substrates like these, may be utterly inaccurate. The Planning Commission may as well use divining rods and soothsayers.
A cursory literature review of the EPR indicates: “In moist and/or clay-laden soils and materials with high electrical conductivity, penetration may be as little as a few centimeters.” In other words, this tool is equivalent to asking pre-Voting Rights Act black persons to estimate the number of grains of sand in a jar.
“The rush to advance the development of the shopping center and garage confirms one undeniable fact—that the Planning Commission is in the back pocket of the developers.”
By sidelining the independent anthropologists who could assist the community in understanding the parameters of this project (one of whom worked on the New York Wall Street African Burial Ground Project) and basing the determination as to whether a cemetery exists on GPR, the Planning Office and the developer are simply setting the stage to green light building the garage on the cemetery.
Harvey Matthews, who lived in the once thriving African community in Bethesda before his family was forced off their farm, rejects the notion that physical remains have to be discovered in order to legitimize the cemetery's existence. "They going to use radar on Lincoln's tomb? Or the Unknown Soldier? Or Kennedy's grave in Arlington to determine if those sites are still holy?" Matthews asks. "Of course not. Those people have historical significance. Well, I'm here to tell you that a final resting place for first generation free Africans in the United States is significant. We must honor that significance with a museum to consecrate what happened here."
Graves may never be found, but to build on the site is unjust and immoral. The site is sacred land and demands a tribute to the community, the first African community buried in Montgomery County after emancipation. An installation of a beautiful wooded area for present and future generations to ponder the evilness of displacement and ethnic cleansing is in order. The Macedonia community has called for the County to build a museum devoted to educating the public about the African community that once existed in the heart of Bethesda. That community made significant contributions to the development of the county—in a country that disrespected them in life and discarded them in death.
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.