Friday, December 04, 2015

Was an African-American graveyard desecrated during earlier Westbard development?

While there are differences of opinion on building heights, density and amenities in the Westbard Sector Plan process, I think one point most can agree on is the positive effort Montgomery County Planning Department staff have made on the historical component of the draft plan. At yesterday's work session, there was finally a public discussion on one of the issues I've been concerned about since 2011 -  the potential location(s) of one or more cemeteries related to the African-American community that lived along River Road between Ridgefield Road and Little Falls Parkway up until the 1960s.

In the widely-unknown history of the so-called "Westbard" area, one of the major developments that occurred was the the relocation of former slaves from the Loughborough plantation (which ran roughly from today's Little Falls Parkway all the way into Northwest Washington at Nebraska Avenue; the Loughborough's mansion stood where NBC4 is today) to that stretch of land on either side of River Road. This occurred after Maryland Emancipation in 1864, and ended when industrial, commercial and residential developers bought the land for projects such as the Kenwood condominium and Westwood Tower. But in between came a lot of history, a thriving community, and even a Rosenwald school, the River Road Colored School.

Considering that there was both a community and a church (the Macedonia Baptist Church, which is still there today, and is the only structural remnant of the black community), it occurred to me that there must have been at least one cemetery in the area. Knowing that none are physically preserved in today's commercial/industrial area, this raised great concern for me when EYA proposed the townhomes on the Hoyt property near Little Falls Parkway. Those concerns were ignored during the planning process at the time.

I found the staff assigned to the Westbard plan rewrite to be far more responsive to community concerns about historical and potential archeological resources. When I was critical on my blog of the very early historical summary given by planners at the beginning, which essentially described the area having emerged from the arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad among other errors, Westbard Sector Plan project manager John Marcolin actually reached out to me via email to ask how they could improve it, and what historical resources I had used to find that information.

The historical information now found in the current draft of the plan not only contains the points I and others in the community brought up at that time, and during the week-long charrette process, but has now expanded significantly beyond those. Whereas the historical staff member originally assigned to the plan never even bothered to show up during the charrette (in fact, planning staff assigned to the environmental elements of the plan, Katherine Nelson and Marco Fusto, actually were of more help in tracking down historical and geological evidence during the charrette week than the absent history guy), the later addition of Senior Planner Sandra Youla resulted in actual research using wider historical sources.

So while oral history in the community has pointed to an African-American cemetery having been on the current site of the Westwood Tower, its parking lot, and a parking lot on the other side of the bridge behind it, additional details have emerged.

At yesterday's worksession, a significant amount of evidence that there indeed was a cemetery on that site was presented. While there is no evidence of it above-ground, tax records show White's Tabernacle owned the land in 1911, and notes it was used as a cemetery. White's Tabernacle was an African-American benevolent society. Park and Planning staff said oral history suggests some tombstones remained as late as the 1950s on the site.

The road that goes from in front of the former WDCA Channel 20 studios down behind the McDonald's retaining wall to a parking lot apparently was known as Outlet Road. Descendants of the original black community have told planners that funeral processions from the Macedonia Baptist Church traveled that road in order to reach the cemetery.

Death notices from the 1910s and 1930s refer to burials at the "Moses Cemetery" in Friendship, MD. That is somewhat complicated, as I've heard construction workers building high-rises in Friendship Heights encountered at least one African-American cemetery there. Planners said yesterday that "Friendship" was a name that once extended as far as the Westbard area from the DC line. So that one could go either way.

Longtime residents who lived along River Road and/or worked in the commercial/industrial area that I've spoken to say there was indeed a cemetery on the White's Tabernacle land, and that it was desecrated during the construction of Westwood Tower. The recollections are fairly detailed, and horrifying if true. I, frankly, find these accounts credible based on the sources. But no historical record of that has yet been found.

What planners have found, is that the WSSC first installed sewer lines in that vicinity in the 1930s. Between 1959 and 1963, the utility built the channelized Willett Branch stream, which actually moved the stream further west from its original course. Later in the 1960s, Westwood Tower was built.
Aerial map shows the past
route of Willett Branch (dotted
blue line) and the new, channelized
route engineered by WSSC in
the late 1950s (solid blue line)
[click to enlarge]

The essential questions are - Was there a cemetery there? There appears to be significant evidence there was. Was it disturbed? Or were the bodies relocated - without public record of this happening - prior to development?

Importantly, there is a fair chance we are going to learn the answers to these questions in the coming years.

The plan will make reference to this issue, and much like the basic recognition of the African-American community, this is what I hoped could be done back when the process began over a year ago. Cassandra Michaud, an archeologist with the Parks department, said Thursday that "there is a potential for human remains to be located within."

The Parks department will have a role in pursuing the investigation, should it gain management over the stream buffer around Willett Branch in a naturalization of the stream. Such archeological surveys should be conducted as early as possible in a development process, according to the guidelines of the Maryland Historical Trust. Parks staff indicated they would conduct such a survey should it acquire any of the site in question.
Mechanical stripping being used
to locate unmarked graves at
Freedman's Cemetery in Alexandria
(Photo: Montgomery County
Planning Department)
A geophysical survey would include the use of ground penetrating radar to locate graves. Any asphalt (such as in the existing parking lots there) and upper soil would be removed in small sections at a time, and then replaced after the test is completed. This mechanical stripping is an effective tool to locate unmarked graves. Should any be found, one option would be to incorporate the gravesites into the eventual "green ribbon" park with interpretive signage. This has already been done at the Darnestown Heritage Park along Route 28. Alternatively, the remains could be relocated under state guidelines.

Joula said that the goal of the historical component in the plan is to "create a place that brings forward history," and makes the history of Westbard more evident.

Among the specific recommendations she has made for the final plan, are to retain the historical African-American street names for Clipper and Dorsey Lanes (names of actual landowners there); encourage use of materials that were either found locally, or formerly manufactured in the Westbard area, such as Indiana limestone and rock from local quarries; and to include historical wayfaring signage and history-based public art throughout the CRT zone developments of a redeveloped Westbard area.

The second and third recommendations are critical to creating a unique sense of place that won't be a cookie cutter knockoff of today's "town center" developments. The third has been proven effective already at sites such as the Gallery Bethesda, which has art commemorating the Twist and Shout club/American Legion hall that once stood on its site, and Pike & Rose, which pays tribute to a local bakery on the facade of the PerSei apartments. As opposed to significant landmarks vanishing without any record, future generations will ask what these commemorative artworks or markers refer to, and the history will survive at the very least.

Some additional details and language will be added by the time the Board votes on the plan draft on December 17, Joula said.

While I'm not quite there on the density, road capacity and amenities of the current draft plan, I do think the staff should be commended for their outstanding work on these very important aspects of the plan related to the history and identity of the area.


Anonymous said...

Not usually one to say this, but this is a great article, Robert. I've lived in the Westbard area for years and genuinely never knew about any of this. 10/10 would read article again.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Thanks, Robert.

Anonymous said...

Also adding thanks. The history of the land has significance for some of us, and we appreciate the tenacity and investment of time and care that has gone into this work. Great piece, Robert.

Anonymous said...

Here's the link to the Martenet map.