"What a beautiful day to fight for justice," said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo in greeting the crowd, as bright sun and 70-degree temperatures made for ideal march conditions. She said the cemetery has become a "battlefield," as the church fights "for our integrity, and our dignity. The lives of the people buried across the street have meaning...We were not born yesterday, and we understand corporate power."
One theme addressed by several speakers at the rally was that "black lives matter, in life and in death." Three mothers whose young sons had been killed in recent years, and who did not find justice in the legal system, compared their efforts to speak for their sons today with the struggle to find justice for the deceased buried in the cemetery here.
The Planning Department has released several statements with aspirational language about hiring independent professors to monitor the cemetery search. Church leaders say that is not true. "Despite [Planning Director] Gwen Wright's assurances and her statement, that they've hired the anthropologist, that they've hired the archaeologist, it's all lies," Coleman-Adebayo said. "They haven't hired a single person."
Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation scoffed at planners' skepticism of a cemetery former residents of the historic black community vividly recall. "It does not 'appear,' it is so," she said. "It is the lived experience of this community. It is the lived experience of this church. It is the lived experience of people of color standing here to proclaim that black lives matter, in life and in death. Every single life under that 60 feet of fill under that parking lot was a human life, with a human story worth celebrating, worth loving, and worth mourning."
MBC's interim pastor Segun Adebayo said he would not be deterred even if a search finds no remains. "We know that there are bodies there...We know that that is a sacred ground, and there are bodies lying there beneath the ground." He and other church officials say they want the cemetery land to be given to the public to create a museum and monument to those buried in the graveyard, and to teach visitors about the vanished black community that once thrived along River Road. They envision school buses bringing classes to visit the museum, and a quiet space on the cemetery site where people can relax and enjoy the view of the future naturalized Willett Branch stream.
"We know that God is on our side, and we know that victory is assured us," Adebayo said.
The need for such a museum was illustrated by the next speaker, Laurel Hoa, of Showing Up for Racial Justice Montgomery County. "I was raised in Montgomery County, and went to Montgomery County Public Schools. But I was never taught that River Road was the home of a community of formerly-enslaved persons who saved money, bought land, built homes, churches and a cemetery," Hoa recalled. "The people who are buried in that ground deserve respect, especially if they were denied it in life. People would never accept a parking garage being built on Arlington National Cemetery, because it is accepted that those dead bodies deserve respect."
"The fact that these plans keep moving forward despite vigorous objections from the community," Hoa said, "it's clearly indicative of the fact that at an institutional level in this country, even in a very liberal county like our own, black lives don't matter as much as other lives. This is unacceptable. We must demand that this change. Because black lives do matter, in life and in death. And black history matters, because it is our history. We cannot be a great nation if we continue to deny the humanity of some of our people, and continue to disregard history that many would rather not contemplate...We demand that the County do the right thing, and build a museum to teach about our local history, not a parking garage."
"There was never any record that [the remains] were moved somewhere else in the county," said Harvey Matthews, who used to play in the cemetery when he grew up in the original black community. "As far as I'm concerned, they're still over there in that clay hill, over by the high-rise, down under about 70 to 80 feet of fill dirt."
Once again, protesters marched down River Road, behind the McDonald's, and to the site of the cemetery at Westwood Tower. The names of some of those known to be buried there were read, along with the ritual pouring libation, before marching along Westbard Avenue and River Road back to the church.
"We've got a planning [board] basically fighting us every step of the way," Coleman-Adebayo told the crowd at the cemetery site. "So at some point people need to understand they have to have a moral core. They have to do the right thing. And we're going to teach them, if they don't know how, we will teach them how to do the right thing."
To join the effort this Thursday, February 23, the plan as of right now is to arrive at noon; the "Westwood Shopping Center" agenda item will be taken up sometime in the afternoon session after 12:45. Sign up online to testify on that agenda item.
|Three mothers whose sons|
were killed, representing the
Coalition of Concerned Mothers
|At the cemetery|
site at Westwood Tower