Tempers Flare at Housing Opportunities Commission Meeting Over Cemetery Site

Macedonia Baptist Church members remain worried that the county will build a parking garage

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Protesters at Wednesday's Housing Opportunities Commission meeting

Dan Schere

Despite assurances from the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) that a parking garage will not be built on the site of a historically-black cemetery in Bethesda’s Westbard community, members of the nearby Macedonia Baptist Church are not satisfied.

For the last two years, the church has been fighting to have the burial ground memorialized, which would make it illegal for the county to plan any development there. The site was originally bought in 1911 by an African American benevolent organization for the purpose of serving as a burial ground. The land was then sold in the 1950s, and much of the area was turned into a parking lot for the Westbard Tower apartments.

Since early 2017, church members, activists and some political candidates have been attending HOC meetings to urge the organization to designate the grounds as a historic site, which some hope will contain a museum about Westbard’s former African American community. The original plans for the property were for a parking garage to be built on the site. In December 2017, the HOC bought the Westbard Tower property for $20 million.

About two dozen people, which included church members and other activists, spoke during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s HOC meeting, alleging that the commission has declined to meet with them about the matter. During the hearing, activists frequently broke out in song, singing civil rights songs such as “We Shall Overcome.” Many had signs with messages such as “black lives matter in life and death.”

“Every time we go to the community [HOC] meeting, we go and they testify and they just say ‘thank you’ and that’s it. And we’ve been doing this for a good two years,” said Silver Spring resident Robert Stubblefield, who is a member of the church.

Stubblefield noted that the Montgomery County Planning Board and Regency, the Westbard developer, have both already agreed that the cemetery site should be protected.

Kensington resident Shira Ehrlich said at the meeting that by refusing to act on the cemetery, the HOC was “covering up black history.”

At one point during Wednesday’s hearing, HOC Executive Director Stacy Spann argued with the church’s pastor Segun Adebayo, and his wife, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, who wanted an immediate commitment from the HOC on the cemetery site. Spann asked that the protesters allow the HOC to carry on with that day’s business.

“We have a community forum. We’ve done that respectfully. It’s now time for us to move on … now it’s time to move on with our business meeting.

The protesters then repeatedly chanted “give us the land,” prompting a security guard to enter the chamber and ask Coleman-Adebayo to stop her protest. The group left the meeting after a few minutes.

Bethesda resident Lynn Pekkanen complained after the hearing that the HOC is only “pushing us to form a huge coalition,” of other residents who oppose development on the cemetery site.

Spann, in an interview with Bethesda Beat, said that the HOC has been “very clear in private meetings and otherwise” that the organization “has no intention to develop on the site.” Westbard Tower, he said, will remain independent of any plans for the cemetery.

“Our intent is to maintain that as a residential building and to operate it as it is,” he said.

Spann said the HOC has been supportive of memorizing the cemetery site, and that it was “unfortunate that that has been misconstrued.” Ultimately, he said, the outcome of the Westbard cemetery will be determined by the county council and County Executive Marc Elrich

“Every indication from the council members and former County Executive Leggett and current County Executive Elrich is that they support [memorialization],” Spann said.

 Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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