|2015 Planning Department|
"Confidential" internal map
A press release from the church this morning calls the effort to keep cemetery details "confidential" a "vast government cover-up." The Planning Board is scheduled to hear an update on the cemetery investigation, which it had ordered the Planning Department to have completed by now, on Thursday morning. But that investigation has not even begun, and the Board is now likely to instead discuss a letter from County Executive Ike Leggett, directing them to have an independent arbitrator resolve the dispute between the department and the church. MBC leaders are planning a protest at the Planning headquarters at 8787 Georgia Avenue during Thursday's meeting, at which the public is being denied the right to speak.
The internal emails, primarily from 2015, show that Senior Planner for Historic Preservation Sandra Youla had uncovered a significant amount of detail about the hidden cemetery, which was already desecrated by construction workers building the Westwood Tower apartments in the late 1960s. Developer Equity One and the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission are now actively seeking to build a parking garage on the cemetery site, which would desecrate the cemetery once more. Youla, who was responsible for one of the few bright spots of the Westbard sector plan - an extensive historical background section - provided land records, aerial photographs showing a tree-covered cemetery site, newspaper and oral history accounts, and even a map showing the plot's location on the Westwood Tower site.
All of this information was labeled, "confidential." But as a Planning Board bus tour that would include the cemetery site neared, senior department leaders sought to prevent commissioners from learning the details Youla had provided.
In a September 15, 2015 email to Montgomery County Planning Director Gwen Wright, Youla said Westbard sector plan project manager John Marcolin "will be in touch to ask how to handle questions on this potential archaeological site on the upcoming Westbard PB [Planning Board] tour on 9.17.2015." Youla appears to have been advised by senior staff that the cemetery details should be kept tightly controlled at this point, even as the Board and the public should have had full access to be able to provide feedback on the plan. "Please do not distribute further until we discuss," Youla warns several Parks Department employees in another September 13 email with attachments of a cemetery history and maps.
A September 8, 2015 message explicitly identifies the burial site as encompassing "Parcel 175...and Parcel 177," and asks if those parcels are being considered for purchase by the County as parkland. Of course, Equity One and HOC were at the same hour steaming ahead with a plan to build a garage on the cemetery. It might be a good idea to let the Board and the public know that the cemetery is on that site, right?
Not so fast. "[M]y understanding is that we are not bringing up the topic of the cemetery at all," wrote Area 1 Division Chief Robert Kronenberg on the morning of the bus tour. "I hope Sandra [Youla] understood that." Later that day, after the Planning Board bus tour has ended, Department of Parks Cultural Resources Manager Joey Lampl expresses her concern to Kronenberg that the "Planning Department did not wish to bring [the cemetery] up this morning," arguing that it is essential "that Planning and Parks agree on when to bring up this important subject to the attention of the Planning Board...sooner, rather than later."
"Thanks for meeting with me and John Hench the other day to clarify who is saying what on the tour today," Park and Trail Planning Supervisor Brooke Farquhar wrote to Marcolin, Youla and Historic Preservation advisor Scott Whipple the morning of the tour. "The plan is:
1. There will be no site-specific indication of where the cemetery was because now it
is considered an archaeological site."
2. Gwen will respond to any questions about the pre-existing cemetery and its
Note the highlighted words referring to the cemetery in the past tense, and citing its "relocation." Huh? The information Youla provided these staff members with, in fact, showed no evidence that the cemetery had been relocated. She was unequivocal in her finding on that matter: "No evidence has been uncovered yet that human remains were relocated from the one-acre parcel."
My own research has uncovered no records or documents showing any authorized relocation of remains from this site, and neither have the separate research efforts of the Macedonia Baptist Church and Little Falls Watershed Alliance. In short, while we know that some remains on the site were illegally relocated downward from the Westwood Tower footprint by construction workers, and an unspecified number of other remains may have been illegally relocated to Howard Chapel Cemetery by Westwood Tower architect John d’Epagnier, there is no evidentiary reason to believe the hundreds of other gravesites there have been disturbed or relocated. The article by Bill Turque in the Washington Post that recounted the alleged reburials at Howard Chapel also revealed further cover-ups by the Planning Department, which never informed the public of the information it had regarding d'Epagnier's actions, nor that all documents related to the construction of Westwood Tower had been mysteriously "shredded" in 2015.
Youla also made several significant recommendations. First, that the African-American cemetery and an unrelated family cemetery "be added to the Montgomery County Cemetery Inventory, and perhaps this should be added as a recommendation in the Westbard Sector Plan." Second, that the "River Road African American cemetery should certainly be commemorated, regardless of whether there are still remains on site." That is the same position MBC's Pastor-elect Segun Adebayo has taken publicly.
"[I]t is reasonable to explore purchasing both parcels P175 and P177 as park land," Youla wrote, another recommendation of MBC, which wants to build a museum commemorating the River Road African-American community. Youla also suggested the Parks Department conduct ground penetrating radar tests to delineate the cemetery, and that Equity One should be notified of the graveyard.
Notably, Youla also wrote that "There may be remains on other nearby parcels, since cemetery boundaries may not have been precisely marked and it is a frequent occurrence that graves extend beyond cemetery boundaries." That is precisely one of the concerns MBC and the community had when the Planning Board rammed through Equity One's sketch plan in February - could there be remains either already in-place, or illegally relocated, on adjacent parcels which now could be redeveloped thanks to that decision. Youla brought up the question of whether the Planning Board should make an official declaration in the sector plan that any remains on-site should be left to rest in peace, even if Equity One has the legal right to move them.
"We all need to be on the same page," wrote Park and Planning Stewardship Division Chief John Hench on the morning of the bus tour. It appears the Planning Department, Equity One, the Planning Board and the public were anything but. Youla's recommendations and findings were watered down in the final Westbard sector plan. At one point, the plan dares to declare, "The cemetery is no longer extant, the land having been sold in 1958."
Advocates for historical preservation of the cemetery and the lost black community are questioning what the effort to downplay the cemetery in 2015 was all about. "The question remains whether upper echelon officials were utterly left in the dark throughout the process, or if they were privy to the cover-up and had a part in structuring the proceedings in a way that could provide them plausible deniability," Macedonia Baptist Church asked in its press release this morning.