Scores of Protestors March From Bethesda Church to Cemetery Site

Demonstrators continue pressing county to protect, memorialize historic graveyard


Published:

Demonstrators on Sunday marched the half-mile from an African-American church on a hillside to the parking lot covering the site of a historic black graveyard.

PHOTO FROM KEVIN BERENDS

Demonstrators on Sunday marched the half-mile from an African-American church on a hillside to the parking lot covering the site of a historic black graveyard.

Congregants at Macedonia Baptist Church have spent months struggling to convince county leaders to block any future development at the site and instead establish a memorial and museum about the black community that once thrived along River Road.

Church member Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said this weekend’s march proves that support for the cause is only strengthening over time.

“I think the rally accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish, and that was to show the breadth of our support in Montgomery County,” said Coleman-Adebayo, who leads the church’s social justice ministry.

She estimated that 300 to 400 people attended the rally.

Faith leaders from around the region joined the demonstration, including representatives from the Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim communities, she said. County Council member Marc Elrich spoke at the afternoon gathering, as did a woman whose ancestors lived in the River Road community; she believes they are buried at the cemetery site.

The parking lot and adjoining affordable apartment complex, Westwood Tower, stand on land used as a burial ground in the early 20th century. The property was paved over about six decades ago when the Westbard area was redeveloped, and there is some question about whether bodies were removed at that point.

However, church members are adamant that there are still graves at the site and are demanding that county leaders protect the area from current plans to redevelop the Westbard neighborhood.

This month, housing commission officials declared that they have no current plans to redevelop the Westwood Tower property, the center of the ongoing battle over the burial site.

On Nov. 1, Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission Chair Jackie Simon read a statement about the apartment property as protestors lined the back of the room, many carrying signs shaped like headstones.

“[A]t present, and for the foreseeable future, the Commission has no plan to develop the property,” Simon said. “The Commission intends to purchase Westwood Tower and operate it in its current state.”

Coleman-Adebayo said the church is at a disadvantage because of the “cozy relationship” between civic leaders and developers in the county.

Council members recently approved a measure to require the Montgomery County Planning Board to create and maintain a countywide inventory of burial sites. A companion bill, which also passed unanimously, would require burial sites to be respected during the subdivision approval process.

However, cemetery advocate Kevin Berends, a Takoma Park resident, said the march shows the county needs to do much more to protect historic grave sites from development.

“There was a preponderance of speakers who were from all walks of life, all persuasions, all religions—Muslim, Christian, Jewish—who are just appalled,” Berends said.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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