Showdown Coming Over Fate of Historic Bethesda Cemetery
Protesters, including a mayor, vow to be arrested at housing authority meeting
The mayor of a tiny Montgomery County town says he is willing to face arrest Wednesday afternoon if it helps break a longstanding impasse between the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission and the Macedonia Baptist Church over a Bethesda burial ground.
Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin is expected to join protesters from Macedonia Baptist Church at a public meeting of the housing authority to call for the protection of a burial ground that the church believes holds the remains of descendants of the historically black congregation.
The property, at 5204 River Road, is owned by HOC and is a parking area for the adjacent Westwood Towers apartments. In December 2017, the HOC bought the property for $20 million.
For two years, church members of the have been pushing the HOC to grant them a paved parking lot that they say covers the cemetery.
At a public HOC meeting last month, four protesters supporting the church were cited for disorderly conduct by Montgomery County Police. They will be required to appear in court, but their appearances have not been scheduled, said church member Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.
Coleman Adebayo, who along with other protestors have been signaling their plans to protest and be arrested at Wednesday’s meeting, said that she and her fellow church members see no alternative than to protest.
“For two years we’ve been met with disrespect and disregard, so I think the community as a whole, we needed to elevate this issue,” she said. “We literally needed to put our bodies on the line in the tradition of the Civil Rights movement.”
County Executive Marc Elrich has called the standoff a “blemish on the county” and has offered to help mediate a resolution.
HOC chairwoman Jackie Simon has said that she is willing to work with Elrich to find a solution.
Elrich did not respond to requests made Tuesday and Wednesday for comment.
The HOC is the intermediary agency in the county responsible for owning, leasing and acquiring land used for affordable housing.
In an interview Wednesday morning, Simon said that there is no timetable set for a resolution to the Westbard matter. No development is currently planned for the site, but to determine how the land would be memorialized, a meeting between Elrich, nearby property owners, the black community and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission would be necessary, she said.
“It’s not our resolution to make. This is a zoning matter. It is a land use matter. It is a cultural preservation matter. And we are going to be more involved as we get involved on the aspect of permitting some of the land for memorial,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, the Park and Planning Commission would determine what any memorial would look like.
“It could be a piece of art. It could be a memorial garden with a prayer patch. It could be any number of things. But that is in no way a part of our decision,” she said. “I understand the frustration, but there is a process and it’s not being followed, and we are going to follow the process prescribed by law.”
Slavin, a mayor of a down county town of 1,200, quoted the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer during an interview Tuesday when he said he was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” with regard to the housing commission’s inaction.
“I’m tired of hearing about it. I’m tired of all these promises. It’s time for action,” he said. “This is something that needs leadership, and unfortunately it was never resolved during the [County Executive Isiah] Leggett administration and hopefully it will be resolved during the Elrich administration.”
Slavin said he decided he would participate in the protest last weekend after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook was discovered to contain a photo depicting a man in blackface, standing beside someone dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Slavin is known for engaging in acts of protest, most recently resigning from the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville after the club refused to allow former President Barack Obama to join. The mayor said he is convinced that civil disobedience can be effective.
“What about Martin Luther King and all those civil rights leaders that got arrested? Maybe that’s the only way it works,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org