Saturday, February 18, 2017
Third Bethesda cemetery protest Sunday at 1:30 PM + fact-checking racist Westbard propaganda
As the movement to demand the church and those who were buried in the cemetery receive the same respect from Montgomery County as the developer who now owns the land grows, a half-baked disinformation campaign has been launched in some of the darker corners of the local internet. It's time for a fact check.
Here are the facts:
The concerns about the cemetery are not a new, 2017 issue. Period. While the church congregation, former residents and their descendants were well aware a black community had existed in the Westbard area of River Road from the 1860s to 1960s, this historic community was never acknowledged by Montgomery County. In fact, the county assisted in its erasure. Therefore, few residents who arrived here after that time - including myself - had any way to know this history.
While researching the history of the Loughborough plantation (which was located from roughly today's Little Falls Parkway to Nebraska Avenue in the District) in 2011, I learned that its former slaves established a community in what is now the industrial area of River Road in the 1860s, after Maryland Emancipation.
As a history major, it was clear to me that such a community, with a church, would have likely had a cemetery. When the Montgomery County Planning Department was eager to give approval to the Little Falls Place project on the Hoyt/Betco plant property in 2011, I testified about the black community before the Planning Board, and the National Capital Planning Commission (which had to sign off on LFP because Little Falls Stream Valley Park was originally set aside as a highway facility by the federal government, and a part of the park was being turned over to the developer).
My testimony - surprise, surprise - was disregarded and ignored by both bodies. The Planning Board's historical preservation advisor giggled, and told the commissioners that he rarely comes before them to say this, but that there is absolutely nothing historic about the industrial area where the Betco property was located. Of course, today, he looks like a complete fool.
My concern was that, with no deep excavation ever having been done on the Betco site, it was one of many possible cemetery sites. In any case, via my testimony, the Planning Department was now well aware of the historic black community, and the potential to find a graveyard in an area where only a few high-rises have required major excavation (one of which actually struck the cemetery, it would turn out).
Fast-forward to November 2014, when I attended the Sunrise Session for business owners of the Westbard sector plan area. A man from one of the businesses said he knew where the cemetery was, and had an eyewitness account of it having been desecrated by construction workers building Westwood Tower in the late 1960s. In this account, not only were more than 12 gravesites disturbed, but remains were then allegedly - and illegally - relocated to an adjacent area of the site. The remainder of the cemetery was paved over for the building's side and rear parking facilities.
It's my understanding that he shared his account with the Planning Department that same day. Further details were gathered by planners in generating a new historical background for the plan. The Macedonia Baptist Church was informed of this, and a church leader testified at one of the Planning Board Westbard worksessions.
By late 2015, the cemetery - and a reference to the need to survey it before anything was built in that location - was now in the plan. Although the past disrespect by the county left me wary, it appeared the issue was going to be handled properly.
In 2016, two problems emerged. Early in the year, the County Council completely ignored and disregarded the cemetery issue in the plan, and declined to strengthen the language or make its discovery and protection a priority.
Second, Equity One's initial sketch plan submission that included the site did not adequately acknowledge even the relatively weak language about the cemetery in the sector plan. Planners acknowledged receiving many emails and letters regarding this matter at a Development Review Committee meeting in August 2016. In very mild language, planners pressed Equity One to revise their plan.
However, as the process went forward, it turned out that the cemetery was not going to receive the same respect and urgency as the developer's sketch plan, still due to be reviewed by the Planning Board on February 23.
The church and the community (notably the Little Falls Watershed Alliance) began to mobilize more formally in the fall of 2016. Attempts to contract an acceptable firm to conduct the search and delineation of the cemetery repeatedly faltered into winter, and the church feels misled by the promises that were made and broken by the planning department.
There still is no signed contract, and for mindboggling reasons, the Planning Department has yet to approve the ability of two independent anthropologists to oversee the cemetery work, nor a mechanism for the church and community to get all of the same information the developer and county will simultaneously. This unnecessarily raises suspicions of what are they going to try to hide? Why would they not have the most open process possible?
Thus, the protests of the last week. There is nothing new about the issue of the black community, or a "missing" cemetery. This has been brought to the Planning Board and Planning Department's attention since 2011, not just in the last week. So the claims that this is just a new effort to oppose development at Westbard are simply complete hogwash.
Here's what's troubling beyond just the lack of respect for the cemetery in the process right now: that a consistent talking point across both the anonymous commenter propaganda and the official statements from the Planning Department RIGHT NOW, in the last week, is that "graves can be moved."
In other words, the side pushing for development is - Freudian slip or not - showing their hand, and maybe floating this as a political trial balloon, the idea of relocating graves if they can be found.
Now, if the descendants of those buried there, and the church were supportive of that idea, and have some alternative resting place in mind, that would be their decision to make. However, I don't believe they've made any such official statement regarding that yet, so it is highly inappropriate and disrespectful for planners -and internet trolls with suspiciously-uniform talking points - to be talking about moving graves at this juncture. Trust me, there is no "average citizen" of Bethesda who would respond in such a callous way, in such an enlightened and educated community as 20816. These commenters clearly have some personal interest in sweeping the cemetery issue under the rug. I would hope no county official would endorse their dark, racist rage in cyberspace.
If the developer failed to fully investigate land records related to the property they were purchasing, that oversight should not result in yet another disrespectful treatment of the church - or the relatives of those buried in the cemetery - such as we witnessed at the Planning Board Thursday, and in these "anonymous" racist online comments.