Friday, December 09, 2016

Pastor on possibility Westwood Tower construction crews desecrated African-American cemetery: "This is a story that has to be told"

The cemetery property is now
bisected by the relocated
Willett Branch stream (right)
Special report

A crowd of Bethesda residents packed into an upper room at the Westmoreland Congregational Church of Christ last night heard the first public reaction from members of the Macedonia Baptist Church to the likely desecration of an African-American cemetery by construction workers in the late 1960s. Dr. Sterling King, Jr., pastor emeritus of Macedonia Baptist Church, said that if remains were indeed moved without permission, "this is really a crime as defined by the Hague convention."

At least one eyewitness has recalled construction workers building the Westwood Tower apartments at 5401 Westbard Avenue stopping work 12 times, after encountering 12 graves during excavation for the building. After the 12th stoppage, someone at the construction site ordered workers to no longer stop, and to illegally relocate any further human remains found to an unknown location downward from the rear of the property. The specific location, as well as the fate of the first 12 sets of remains, are unknown at this time.

"Who did it? Under
what authority did they
do it?"

Either the remains are still there, King said, or they were moved. He said they could even have ended up "in a dumpster. Who did it? Under what authority did they do it? And what are the repercussions?"

If the remains were moved or removed, King said, "certain charges can be conferred. The perpetrators could be called upon to give an explanation."

King stressed the sacred nature of cemeteries in Judeo-Christian tradition, among other cultures. "Burial sites are very, very sacred grounds," he said. "Any misuse or abuse must be taken seriously. We are interested in the outcome of this."

"This is really
a crime"

The meeting, which was organized and sponsored by the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, featured three speakers who presented a detailed history of the "Westbard" area. Amy Rispin, who previously has written a history of the Brookdale community, and Paige Whitley covered the earliest periods of time. David Kathan, who spoke on the history of the cemetery (which was established in 1911 by White's Tabernacle No. 39, Ancient Order of United Brothers and Sisters, Sons and Daughters of Moses), said there are no records of official burials or removals at the graveyard since 1958, when the WSSC purchased a right-of-way through the cemetery when relocating the Willett Branch stream south of its natural location.

"Records are not as pristine as we often think they are," King said, which reflects a troubling pattern in Montgomery County regarding African-American properties. Farm Road is perhaps the most notorious case.

King said he experienced something similar when he tried to obtain a plat for the Macedonia Baptist Church in the late 1990s. After a lengthy search through County records in Rockville, King recalled, "Would you believe...nothing shows up." The church eventually had to hire a private surveyor, who found the County had illegally taken part of the church's land for a road that runs between it and Bank of America.

"These developers never stop," King said. "There's been a string of efforts to get our church off of the hill."

While Planning Department staff and the newest owners of Westwood Tower, Equity One (Regency Centers) and the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, have said they support attempting to confirm the presence or removal of gravesites on the property, King's stronger words were sorely needed. This is not simply a real estate matter. It is a moral and legal outrage.

The LFWA is lobbying against plans by Equity One and HOC to extend the developed area of their property further into the Willett Branch stream buffer and graveyard footprint. They also are leading the effort to establish a Willett Branch Stream greenway park. It will take community support to make the park a reality. It will also take community attention to the cemetery matter to ensure that we get the answers needed, and solve the mystery of exactly what happened. One troubling reality is that, even if human remains are found now, Maryland law has an official process that allows for the removal of graves to make way for real estate development or public infrastructure.

If "fill" dirt and related debris from the excavation of the Westwood Shopping Center is now on top of the gravesites, it could block ground penetrating radar from showing anything. One attendee at last night's meeting suggested such radar can't reach beyond two feet of depth.

But other methods are available. Mechanical stripping was used in Alexandria to locate graveshafts. I've found some articles on various methods used to locate other missing historical cemeteries in Bibb County, Georgia, where the Georgia clay renders radar useless; and the use of dowsing (yes, like dowsing for water) in Iowa and shovel test pits.

Last night's meeting also confirmed the existence of one other cemetery I had heard of (on the Washington Episcopal School property edge at Little Falls Parkway), and another I hadn't - on the edge of The Kenwood condo property at the final bend as you approach River Road southbound. I have been searching for the locations of the White's Tabernacle cemetery and others since 2011, when the Montgomery County Planning Board and County Council brushed aside the concerns I raised during the Little Falls Place development process, as well as disregarding the fact that the African-American community existed. Now that several researchers have confirmed what I asserted at the time, and presented much greater detail, both bodies look like complete fools.

More lighthearted topics were covered at the meeting, as well. Aerial photos show a baseball diamond on the north side of River Road, east of today's Capital Crescent Trail and west of The Kenwood condos. This was the field for a black semi-pro baseball team, the River Road Lions.

And then there was the time a member of the Clipper family, one of the most prominent in the African-American community along River Road between Ridgefield Road and Little Falls Parkway, rode a zebra from the U.S. Experimental Station of Animal Industry - now Norwood Park and the Bethesda Pool - down River Road.

Updated 12/10/16: Corrected spelling of Paige Whitley, and better clarified zebra anecdote.


Anonymous said...

Ok, now that this outrage has been documented, what do you propose to do about it?

Robert Dyer said...

8:30: To ensure the County follows through on its claim it will require the cemetery issue to be settled before allowing development on the site. I've documented the existence of the cemetery in the past. What's new here are the pastor's remarks from last evening on the subject.

Anonymous said...

It would be appropriate for an archaeological study to be conducted to ascertain the presence of grave sites or human remains on the Equity One property before approving development plans. If gravesites or human remains are present, Maryland law requires that they be recovered and reburied before development proceeds.

Like the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, Save Westbard has also asked for an investigation of the presence of cemeteries on the Westbard redevelopment site and the proper reburial of any human remains.