Historic Bethesda Church To Rally Against Potential Disruption of African-American Burial Ground
Church calls for Planning Board to table Westbard development proposal until experts can assess site
Macedonia Baptist Church on River Road was founded in the 1920s.
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Harvey M. Matthews Sr. has a 60-year-old memory of playing hide-and-seek with his friends in a Bethesda church cemetery, among the chiseled river stones that marked the graves of African-American parishioners.
When he passes the site these days on the way to Macedonia Baptist Church on River Road, he sees an expanse of asphalt. When he looks at development maps for the area, he sees a parking garage slated for the same spot.
“No one can show me a map as of yet of where that cemetery was located,” Matthews, 72, said.
The county’s sweeping plan to redevelop the Westbard area has reopened the wounds created when the graveyard was originally disrupted by builders more than 50 years ago, said church member Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. And at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the nearly century-old Baptist church is coordinating a march to protest what members have called an attack on the history of what was once a thriving black community.
“For these people to have been treated with so little respect in life and then discarded in death, I think makes us all feel that something terribly wrong has happened,” said Coleman-Adebayo, whose husband pastors Macedonia Baptist.
The congregation of roughly 70 has spent months pushing county planners to check for graves at the site, which is now partly covered by a county-owned parking lot for low-rent apartments. Coleman-Adebayo said experts have been called in to scan the ground with radar to find any burial plots and define the boundaries of the graveyard.
However, the church recently learned that the plans submitted by New York-based developers Equity One were on the Montgomery County Planning Board agenda for Feb. 23. With the anthropological analysis still unfinished, church members reacted with indignation.
“As a faith community we embrace the virtue of good neighborliness and peaceable co-existence with our community. However, please be assured that we are forever more determined to fight for the right, honor and dignity of our deceased relatives,” Macedonia Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. Segun Adebayo, wrote this week to county officials.
County planners confirmed that Equity One’s sketch plan is up for consideration later this month but said they are nevertheless committed to a thorough archeological investigation of the site. The analysis has been delayed in order to seek guidance from two experts trusted by Macedonia Baptist’s members.
“The Montgomery County Planning Department shares community concerns about the possible presence of a historic African-American cemetery in Westbard,” planning director Gwen Wright said in a prepared statement. “We have approached this issue with utmost sensitivity to the possible presence of burial sites and will continue to do so.”
Wright pointed out that the sketch plan expresses a general vision and wouldn’t grant Equity One permission to start building on the property where the graves might be located.
Planning staff are recommending that the developer submit an archeological study before a more detailed construction plan is approved, she added. However, County Council President Roger Berliner said he was disconcerted to hear that the Equity One plan is on this month’s agenda, with so much still unknown about the burial ground’s location. Disturbing the area decades ago was “certainly a tragedy that should have been prevented,” he wrote in a Wednesday letter to Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson.
“I do not have the historical knowledge of the events that led to that act and perhaps neither do you. But we do have an opportunity to do things differently today and moving forward,” he wrote.
He asked Anderson not to make any decision Feb. 23 that would hamper the board’s ability to protect the burial ground in the future.
Church members want the board to table the discussion altogether until the assessment is completed.
Rendering shows Equity One's plan for the Westwood Shopping Center, with town houses in the rear. Credit: Equity One.
Matthews said his church once stood at the heart of a thriving settlement founded by African-Americans whose ancestors had left slavery and gone on to prosper. His engineer father and his mother, who managed a local restaurant, decided to raise their seven children in the neighborhood of several hundred residents. But their community was decimated in the 1950s when developers swooped in and claimed the neighborhood, he said.
Matthews said his family was one of the last to leave, moving to Washington, D.C., in 1959.
Now, the Westbard Sector Plan is bringing another round of changes to the area surrounding the church. Equity One has plans to construct 1.8 million square feet of retail, residential and commercial space, including rebuilding the Westwood Shopping Center.
For church members, evaluating the area is just the beginning. Ultimately, they’d like the land designated as a sacred site and the creation of a museum dedicated to the community’s history, said Coleman-Adebayo.
The planned march on Sunday will begin in front of the Baptist church.