|Montgomery County Council|
President Roger Berliner speaks
to the MoCo NAACP general
meeting last night in Rockville
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner faced tough questioning about his role in an ongoing controversy over the African-American cemetery on the Westwood Tower property in Bethesda, at last night's county NAACP meeting. Leaders of Macedonia Baptist Church are scheduled to attend their first mediation meeting with the Planning Department and developer Regency Centers today, the beginning of a process Berliner and County Executive Ike Leggett had suggested two months ago. But the Planning Board ignored the letter and gave Regency a green light to conduct a private study of the cemetery. That plan was unacceptable to church officials, who noted that such a study would be inherently biased toward Regency, which was paying the firm conducting it.
|Rev. Segun Adebayo, pastor of|
Macedonia Baptist Church
social justice director at MBC
|Harvey Matthews, who was|
a resident of the historic River Road
African-American community, before
it was wiped out by developers
While saying he disagreed with Coleman-Adebayo on Wright, Berliner did move further toward acknowledging the cemetery exists. "There is an extraordinary amount of evidence. I concede that." He also apologized to Harvey Matthews, who was a resident of the black community on River Road, until his family was forced out by developers.
Matthews also pressed Berliner on the skeptical language officials keep using, despite Matthews himself having given firsthand accounts of the cemetery to County officials. He said he told Wright that construction workers who desecrated the cemetery while building Westwood Tower in the late 1960s spoke of having dug a "trench" on the site. Using a bulldozer, he said, they plowed remains into that mass grave, an illegal act. But an act that proves the bodies are still there.
Snowden Funeral Home, with vast knowledge of African-American burials in the county, has no record of the cemetery being relocated, Matthews noted. No documents have been found to suggest a removal. He himself used to play among the graves when he was a child growing up on River Road. "This is the real deal," he said of the graveyard. Having officials continue to express skepticism about the cemetery is "very disgusting, with me being born and raised there," he said.
"To the extent to which you feel disrespected, or you feel your ancestors were disrespected, I apologize," Berliner replied.
Matthews recalled how Wright dismissed the two anthropologists the church had wanted to monitor the cemetery investigation. "Wright kicked them to the curb. Why did they kick our people to the curb," Matthews asked Berliner.
Wright remains a controversial figure at the center of the cemetery scandal. When Berliner dashed out the door before the meeting was over, some from the church followed him outside the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville. Wright "is a racist, and we all know it," Coleman-Adebayo said as Berliner walked to his car. "I don't believe that to be true," Berliner responded. "I don't believe Gwen Wright is a racist." "She wanted an all-white staff," Coleman-Adebayo countered, referring to the archaeological investigation of the cemetery. "That's the reality of it. And that's who you're supporting."
The two anthropologists dismissed by Wright were African-Americans, with extensive experience and peer acclaim in site studies of historic black cemeteries.
Berliner appeared to know he was in for a tough night early on, noting, "this is awkward." To his credit, he did not surround himself with police or security guards to have a civil conversation with his constituents, unlike Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and others. He is also literally the only person to apologize to anyone from the church so far, regarding the disastrous way County officials have handled this matter. Of course, none of that guarantees - yet - that we are going to have a full and fair investigation of this cemetery, on which Regency Centers and Montgomery County want to build a parking garage.
The Council President wasn't just feeling the pressure from the audience in front of him. From the executive officers' table behind Berliner, Montgomery County NAACP President Linda Plummer made clear the organization stands with the church on the cemetery issue. "I want everyone to know the NAACP supports Macedonia Baptist Church, and their [pursuit] of justice."