Monday, February 13, 2017

Protesters take to the streets over desecration of African-American cemetery in Bethesda (Video+Photos)

The controversy over how to address an African-American cemetery in the Westbard area of Bethesda that was desecrated and then buried in the late 1960s, boiled over into the streets yesterday. In yet another sign of how the Montgomery County Council and Planning Board seem to now be at war with their own constituents, this was only the second matter to result in citizens marching against Montgomery County officials in my lifetime (compared to the fairly common union protests). In this case, members of the Macedonia Baptist Church and their supporters are asking the Planning Board to not act on the Equity One sketch plan that envisions a 6-story building and parking garage on top of the cemetery.

Despite the request of the church to delay the sketch plan review until a cemetery delineation can be carried out, the Planning Board is going forward anyway. A youth leader at Macedonia Baptist said it was "disrespectful" to put parking over their buried ancestors.

Several community leaders, as well as nearby residents, stood and marched in solidarity with church members yesterday. "What a blessing it is to be in this righteous fight with all of you," said Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Church. While Town of Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin spoke, telling the crowd to "stay woke," the Montgomery County Council was nowhere to be found. Ed Amatetti, a Republican running for the Council in District 2 in 2018, was there, however.

Among the chants and musical selections employed during the march was a particularly appropriate one, "We Shall Not Be Moved." Considering that a developer can try to relocate graves under Maryland law, the title's defiance has a double meaning.

With a robust Montgomery County Police presence, marchers started off into the right westbound lane of River Road in front of the church, chanting anti-Equity One slogans. Officers did a great job of directing traffic and protesters, keeping everyone safe. At the Capital Crescent Trail bridge over River Road, officers shut down the whole state highway for several minutes to allow marchers to cross and reach what was once known as "Outlet Road." This was the route funeral processions would take from the church to the cemetery in decades past, and currently sits below the retaining wall at the rear of the McDonald's parking lot.

Once at the cemetery site, one of the two academics the church wants to represent them when Equity One's hired firm eventually begins a cemetery search, spoke. Dr. Rachel Watkins said the cemetery must be delineated "before any ground is further disturbed or touched." She also advocated having the community "embedded with the discovery process" of any delineation, as much as the developer would be.

Harvey Matthews, who lived in the black community on the site of today's Whole Foods Market, said he always took great pride in telling people he was "born in Bethesda," and "the first black kid to live in Kenwood." He had childhood friends who lived in Kenwood, which was separated from Matthews' property by the Willett Branch stream. Two sycamore trees that were planted out front when he was nine are still standing between the sidewalk and the Whole Foods parking lot.

Whole Foods sent word through the police that they would arrest any of us who entered their property during the protest. Nice.

Matthews recalled playing hide-and-seek and sledding in the cemetery, and doesn't understand why there is any skepticism by the County regarding its existence. "I don't know what game the County's playing," he said, "or how they're playing it." He said he would like there to be some physical memorial that his he, his children, and his grandchildren can visit to pay their respects.

"These Africans in the ground were somebody," said a representative of the Black is Back Coalition, a group organizing for peace, social justice and reparations. "Their presence and blood runs through all of us."

The weather cooperated greatly, with an occasional sprinkle near the end of the march. In a hopeful sign, the sun emerged as Rev. McDonald-Ladd gave a benediction at the close of the march.

Just before the end of the march, protesters paused at the site of Matthews' former home to pay their respects to his family. "I don't care what they say, Whole Foods, about arresting people," he declared. "I was here first."
 *  *  *
Commissioners are currently scheduled to take up the plan at their February 23 meeting. The Planning Department issued a statement in response to news of the plannned protest last week, in which it claimed that approval of the sketch plan would not close any aspect of delineating the cemetery. However, that legal question is not as clear-cut as the news release suggested, in regards to what authority and advantages the developer would hold with an approved sketch plan.

I was, frankly, astonished at the department's insistence that the sketch plan review would go forward. Given the department's never-FBI-investigated role in the Farm Road scandal, in which black landowners were cheated out of their property rights after the road that accessed their properties was "accidentally" deleted by the Planning Board - to the benefit of a development firm, the optics of the Board now thumbing their nose at a black church over desecration of a black cemetery are pretty horrendous. Good Lord.

But after attending yesterday's protest, I am now confident that the sketch plan review is going to be postponed. That's because leaders of the protest made clear that if the Planning Board goes ahead with the sketch plan review at its February 23 Planning Board meeting, they will "shut it down" through civil disobedience if needed. The scene of an African-American congregation shutting down a meeting, in which extremely-ambitious politicians like Casey Anderson and Natali Fani-Gonzalez would be siding with a multi-billion-dollar corporation over black constituents, would be a public relations disaster for the Montgomery County political cartel. They're not going to give us that photo op, folks.

To keep the pressure on, though, two more protests have been scheduled prior to the meeting:

1. Thursday, February 16, 2017 from 2:00-4:00 PM outside the Planning Headquarters at 8787 Georgia Avenue

2. Sunday, February 19, 2017 at 1:30 PM outside the Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road

How could this desecration, like the River Road black community itself, remain "secret" for so many decades? For some reason, Montgomery County never paid any attention, nor pursued the people responsible for this crime against humanity. As syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. said in his Washington Post book review of The Blood of Emmett Till yesterday, "when African-American lives are destroyed by white people, America has historically been reluctant to bring the perpetrators to account." Should it be surprising that this lack of consideration extends to the African-American dead, as well?
Protesters gather in
front of the
Macedonia Baptist Church

Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of
the River Road
Unitarian Universalist Congregation was
among several representatives of local
organizations in attendance

A former pastor of
Macedonia Baptist Church
has said developers have
relentlessly tried to drive
the church off its land

Call and response
with an Equity One theme

The Kenwood, seen in
the background, was
constructed on land that
held some of the final
homes of the original
black community

Church trustee
Harvey Matthews (L) gets
protesters ready to march
onto River Road as
police begin to close lanes

The 850' telecommunications
tower was the site of the
River Road Colored School,
which Matthews attended

There were some emotional
moments at the site of
the cemetery

Equity One
security guards
were called in

Making the climb
to Westbard Avenue

Now on Westbard

Site of Matthews' former
home, taken by developers;
it is now a Whole Foods

Matthews recalls his
years living on this
property, standing next
to the sycamore trees (center)
his family planted when he was 9

Matthews is interviewed
after the march by
Jasmine Norwood of
DCW50 News


Anonymous said...

I noticed a lot of "Black Lives Matter" signs in your photos. I wasn't aware the BLM movement had desecration of cemeteries as one of their key issues.

Or were those people protesting a BLM issue instead, like police brutality?

Robert Dyer said...

6:14: I think it was related to the fact that these black lives - even in death - didn't seem to matter to the builders in the late 60s, nor to the Planning Board today.

Robert Dyer said...

Obviously, that's my assumption, but I won't presume to speak for each person who was carrying that sign.

Anonymous said...

The Planning Board is pretty incompetent and in bed with developers for sure, but I don't think they are specifically targeting black lives. They would steamroll over a white cemetery if it were there also.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever file a complaint with the FBI over Farm Road? Did anyone? Why would the FBI investigate if there has been no complaint?

Robert Dyer said...

7:05: I would tend to agree, but the history of the Planning Board and planning department with the African-American landowners in the Farm Road scandal reinforces a pattern here of taking advantage of black landowners who don't have the financial resources to fight these things in court. Farm Road is tailor-made for an FBI investigation. You start turning over every rock, and you never know what sorts of shenanigans you might find.

While the topic of race is sort of on the front burner here, count me as fascinated that the feds relentlessly hound black politicians in Prince George's and the District, but never look into white elected official corruption here in Montgomery County Government. #ThingsThatMakeYouGoHmmmm

Anonymous said...

"extremely-ambitious politicians like Casey Anderson and Natali Fani-Gonzalez"

Planning Board commissioners are not "politicians"

Robert Dyer said...

7:19: Wrong. Anderson is very politically involved, and Fani-Gonzalez actually ran for office.

Anonymous said...

Why the gratuitous mention of Natali Fani-Gonzalez? Is Dyer trying to stir up trouble between African-Americans and Latinos?

Robert Dyer said...

7:22: I mentioned the two commissioners who clearly have major political aspirations. Norm Dreyfuss isn't on the Board to further his political career with developer chits to call in down the road.

Anonymous said...

The press release issued by the organizers of the rally made the point that Black Lives Matter, and that they should not be diminished after death by erasing evidence of a cemetery.

Anonymous said...

The Planning Board and the Planning Department have at best been tone deaf and insensitive on the matter of the cemetery (perhaps cemeteries-- evidence exists of a possible second graveyard) at Westbard. They might not be specifically targeting the black community, but their actions are compounding the original injury suffered by the African-American community when the cemetery was paved over.

The Planning Board, the Planning Department and the County Council set numerous conditions in the sector plan for the developer to meet in redeveloping Westbard (a civic green, the realignment of Westbard Avenue, the provision of 15% affordable housing, the installation of historic signage, and others.) Why were no conditions set concerning the investigation and delineation of any graveyards as prerequisites for local approvals?

That the Planning Department and Planning Board have not agreed to delay approval of the Westbard sketch plan pending completion of the cemetery investigation shows a colossal lack of respect.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

7:05 Agreed 100%!!! Developers and the MOCO Council are One.

Unfortunately, this march seems to be occurring about 50 years too late! That graveyard was paved over so long ago that it seems like it would be next to impossible to find any caskets or bones now. The new owner of the property seems to be being penalized for the actions of people who desecrated the site long ago and are now likely dead.

Also, the Whole Foods was previously River Bowl Lanes, a place thousands of people (black & white and probably several of those marching) enjoyed for many years in the 70's & 80's. If these "Black lives matter" folks are disrupting business at Whole Foods on a weekend that is wrong.. Just go home.

Anonymous said...

The Montgomery County Planning Department (led by Gwen Wright) and Planning Board (led by Casey Anderson) have thus far ignored the the pleas of the Macedonia Baptist Church and the local African-American community to complete cemetery studies before approving the layout of the Westbard site. What insensitivity and arrogance.

The same disregard for public opinion was demonstrated when the Planning Board and Planning Department ignored the citizens and civic organizations who opposed the heights and densities proposed for Westbard.

The County Council endorsed this insensitivity, arrogance and disregard for the public when it approved the Westbard sector plan.

I am very disappointed in Montgomery County's elected leadership and planning staff for their decisions on Westbard. Before this, I viewed County government favorably.

Anonymous said...

@7:05 No one disrupted Whole Foods' business. You should review the videos of the extremely peaceful protest before throwing down judgment. In contrast, Whole Foods abandoned any pretense of a neighborly attitude, and informed the organizers/protesters that they would be arrested if they set foot on their property.

"Wrong" doesn't know a political party. This protest was supported by a wide-range of people who think the County's chance to rectify the wrong is here and now. It's never too late to right a wrong.

Anonymous said...

Previous comment was to 8:16 NOT to 7:05; sorry

Anonymous said...

Interesting how Dyer is using dead African-Americans (cemetery desecrated 50 years ago) to keep live African-Americans out of his neighborhood (blocking affordable housing).

Anonymous said...

Logic says to delay the development and figure out what we're dealing with before building on top of grave sites.

Anonymous said...

How did the original developer of the Westwood Tower come to acquire this land? Who owned it immediately prior to them? Was there any documentation of the cemetery in official land records?

Robert Dyer said...

9:46: Yes, land records show the cemetery.

Robert Dyer said...

9:22: There already are African Americans living there, but obviously you aren't familiar with the area.

Anonymous said...

The cemetery has announced that it is moving to Spotsylvania County, Virginia.

Take that, MoCo Machine!

Anonymous said...

The optics are terrible for the Planning Board...And to do this during Black History Month.

Anonymous said...


I said if BLM created a disruption in the Whole Foods business it was wrong. The general manager should be yelling at the top of his lungs "get outta my parking lot and off the grass or else". Whole Foods was founded in Austin Texas in 1980 (graveyard paved over late 60's) and owes nothing to anyone other than their customers desperate for a parking spot.

Anonymous said...

Where exactly do they believe the cemetery stood?

Anonymous said...

Underneath a sea of pavement behind the Westwood tower apartment building. Basically, sinking alot of somebodys money into a project which will clearly end in futility (very similar to the Westbard protests). However, protesting seems to be the new normal (cause the left rejects democracy) so I say Go For It and good luck with that !

Robert Dyer said...

5:54: Under what is now Westwood Tower, and the parking lot to the side and behind it. Also within the hill that runs down the driveway of the parking lot.

Anonymous said...

"protesting seems to be the new normal (cause the left rejects democracy)"

Not counting the host and his faithful reader, that's the dumbest comment I've read here in a long time.

Anonymous said...

Protest is a cornerstone of First Amendment freedoms. The right to protest is intrinsic to democracy.

Anonymous said...

First Amendment:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Anonymous said...

I am still unclear on why the protest stopped at the Whole Foods. The property is not owned by Equity One and is not near the old cemetery. Protesters are certainly allowed to gather on the public sidewalk along River Road, but to passersby and probably to the manager, it would seem to imply that that property and Whole Foods are the offending people, which they are not. Not exactly a fair action by the protesters. Also the property was not "TAKEN" by developers. It was PURCHASED by the bowling alley owners and later sold again and converted to a shopping center.

Anonymous said...

5:12 & 10:36


Donald J. Trump is now President of this great land all these different Soros funded paid protester hate groups like Urban League, BLM, will be destroyed in short order by Attorney Jeff Sessions and the new DOJ. Bring on the National Guard, heads will roll soon..Watch!